The Last of Us (2013)

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“The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature.”
-Antoine François Prévost d’Exiles, Manon Lescaut

 

 

What are the differences between video games and movies? As time goes on and technology advances, the differences have become increasingly minimal. Can we expect games that are 100% cutscenes with quick time events in another 10 years or so? In what sense would they still be video games and not interactive movies? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

By 2013, video games had embraced their evolution toward becoming more “adult”. Like any true maturing entity, gaming generally derided the cartoonish whimsy of the retro era and adopted hard-boiled anti-heroes, gritty realism, language, sex, and violence. The former became old hat while the latter became mainstream. The Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 delivered experiences which could appeal to mature audiences without flinching. Of course, there was the Wii, as well, busily outselling both on the grounds of its (in hindsight) gimmicky motion controls and party games, but the Wii’s simple fun didn’t define what games had could resemble now. Not really.

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The industry had reached a point where games could begin to tell stories in cinematic fashion. We could sit back, set our controllers down, and watch full-fledged cutscenes which play out like movies, lasting for minutes on end. With the advent of voice acting, casting real actors, face mapping and motion capture, creative direction, orchestral sound design, and talented screenwriting, the possibility arose of creating games which could engage players the same way that films engage audiences. The gap between film (a universally accepted art form) and video games (in 2013 still perceived by the general populace as “kidstuffs”) had shrunk. A big part of that shrinkage belongs to the contribution of the game under my microscope today.

2013 saw the release of The Last of Us by Naughty Dog, a game which was definitively “adult” in the gaming sense of the term (that’s important, more on that later). The Last of Us was universally acclaimed by critics and gamers alike. It quickly became one of the best selling games of the seventh generation of consoles, selling over eight million copies in just over a year and some change. It helped sell Sony’s PlayStation 3, which got off to a rocky start, on the basis of profound exclusives. Undoubtedly, one of the strongest games of its generation, decorated with “Game of the Year” awards, The Last of Us is a bleak, depressing, extreme, and personal journey predicated on obstinate survival, the persistence of hope, and the loss of innocence.

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I vividly recall that nearly every gamer I knew was playing this game at some point that year. I owned a PS3 but it wasn’t a title that I jumped at. There are a few reasons for that which will become apparent as I go on but primarily it’s because I don’t jump at rated M titles, especially “zombie apocalypse” games. I’m not of the persuasion that simply because something is more “adult” that it magically has better storytelling or presentation than something which isn’t marketed on the basis of being “mature”. On the contrary, I’m more than leery when the term “adult” is thrown around because that can often mean shock value, splatter films, torture porn, or just actual porn.

But I do own one of my friends an apology. Mr. Miller (the jr.), I am sorry I made fun of you for “jumping on the bandwagon to play yet another zombie game”. Had I been assured of The Last of Us’ quality as distinct from its genre, I probably would’ve come on board sooner. I can only say that I look at it this way, by way of consolation: at least I had the chance to avoid the hype.

Hype, possibly more so than even nostalgia, is a creator not of rose-colored glasses but of blindfolds.

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Nothing capsizes personal impressions more than being bombarded with volley after volley of faceless opinions saying exactly the same thing, generally positive or negative in the extreme. When positive, that’s hype. The only way to stand against it is to wait until hype dissipates like a vapor and discover for yourself what remains: maybe a smoldering crater, maybe a polished gemstone. That’s why retro-centrism is such a recurring theme in my writing on this blog. Reviewing the classics gives me a chance to stand apart from the hype of ten, twenty, thirty years ago, even before I was born, to examine things with eyes unclouded. Thankfully, I had the pleasure of doing just that with The Last of Us, as I played the original game for the first time four years after its initial release.

With narrative at the forefront of its concerns, The Last of Us follows the journey of Joel and Ellie, detailing the bond that they form over the course of a year. Story is a massive part of the appeal of The Last of Us, so here is the premise. This game has been out for a few years but just in case, here’s a SPOILERS warning. I’d suggest going in as dark as possible because you want to be surprised by this game’s presentation and not have anything ruined for you.

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The story begins in 2013 with Joel and his daughter Sarah living in Austin, Texas. An infectious outbreak occurs causing ordinary civilians to turn insane and violent. Joel and Sarah together with Joel’s brother Tommy attempt to flee the city as the infection spreads. Narrowly escaping, Tommy remains behind so that Joel and Sarah can get beyond the city limits. A soldier runs into them and receives orders to shoot unidentified, at the risk of infection. Tommy arrives and kills the soldier but not before Sarah is gunned down. Joel’s daughter dies in his arms. The tender father in Joel dies as well. This scene defines the game and frames it with intense sadness.

Cut like a knife to twenty years later. The world is in upheaval with vast stretches of ruined cities and suburbs infested with the infected. The Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis infection and its origin, curiously, are never expounded upon. There are only hints from newspaper headlines in the background. This is a nice touch since this sort of thing is usually belabored in the zombie genre. There is enough information in the game to showcase the idea that humans were infected by a Cordyceps-like fungus. Cordyceps is a real world parasitic fungi which grows inside hosts (insects) and slowly displaces their tissue.

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As horrific as it sounds, imagine that happening to people. The fungus in The Last of Us grows inside the brain, affecting behavior and turning the infected into carnivorous monsters. The newly infected are known as Runners, yes, running zombies. The more advanced infections lead to a group of infected known as Clickers. These hosts have been so infected that the fungus has begun to eat away at their faces, rendering them blind. They produce a clicking noise as a kind of echolocation (which makes little sense based on the gameplay) and they must listen in order to find their prey. Bloaters are humans with such advanced infections that fungal plates have begun to protrude from their bodies, making them highly invulnerable. The final stage of the infection seems to be where the fungus replaces all of the host’s tissue. The fungus then releases spores into the air which are obviously not good to breathe.

Quarantines have been set up in this post-apocalyptic world and they’re run like military-states with martial law and food rations. Other human survivors are called Hunters, who prey on other people for food and possessions. Everything is scarcer now. Another group, a rebel cause called the Fireflies, stands against the quarantine police and focuses on searching for a cure. Not a fun time to be alive but fortunately, everything in The Last of Us is out to kill everything else. That’s not hyperbole. Between the quarantine police gunning down anyone possibly infected, the Fireflies acting like urban-terrorists, the hunters acting like head hunters, and nearly everyone murdering each other without impunity or allegiance, it’s remarkable (if not unrealistic) that anyone is alive at all!

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Joel is now an older man and a smuggler, a calloused scumbag and hitman living in the Boston quarantine zone. He and his partner Tess receive a job from the leader of the Fireflies to smuggle a young girl out of the city in exchange for a weapons cache that was stolen from them. The girl’s name is Ellie and Joel and Tess soon discover how special she is. She was bitten but the infection didn’t spread. She’s immune and perhaps she’s the key to finding a cure. Joel finds it hard to trust in anything anymore but when Tess finds herself infected, she sacrifices herself so that Joel and Ellie can escape. The hard-edged old man and the young girl who has never known the world as it used to be spend over a year together over the course of Logan The Last of Us, their bond growing as they learn to protect and rely on each other.

The Last of Us plays out as a series of cutscenes interspersed by encounters with the infected or hostile humans. It’s very much a showmanship kind of a game and one that must be watched as much as it is played. It tells its story in cinematic fashion and this is undoubtedly a part of what made it (and makes it) instantly appealing. It’s quality of acting and sense of its own weight are both top notch.

Even as games like The Last of Us (perhaps not a pioneer but an exemplar) closed the gap between film and game, one thing remained. Only one thing stood between the presentation of cinema and the presentation of video games and that’s interactivity, that pesky, persistent mechanism that (sometimes) gets in the way of games becoming as cinematic as their creators evidently want them to be.

In The Last of Us, this wrestle between cinema and interactivity leads to some very interesting and uncomfortable moments. You’ll just have to keep reading to find out what I mean.

 

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The 8-bit Review
visual Visuals: 10/10
First, let’s talk about one of the many impressive elements in The Last of Us. It’s no exaggeration when I say that this is one of the most visually breathtaking games that I’ve ever played, and I’m not even referring to the later remaster. The original isn’t a current gen game anymore but it clearly used the PlayStation 3’s power for all it was worth. Heck, it looks better than some games I’ve played on the PlayStation 4! Certainly that’s nowhere clearer than in the department of facial animation. Compare the detail, flexibility and emotive capabilities of the PS3 faces in The Last of Us with games that came after it.

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I just have to ask how? How did Naughty Dog achieve so much and later developers with better, more powerful technology achieve so little (broadly speaking)? I can only attribute this to Naughty Dog’s attention to detail and perfectionism in this case, in which they seemed to spare no expense. Treating the game as if it was being directed for the silver screen seems to be at least partially what led to such a triumph. Motion captured actors and face mapping created some of the best animated video game characters I’ve ever seen, indeed which the best which I’ll expect to see for years to come.

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The face is the single most expressive part of our bodies. We can gesture with our hands and create subtle body language to convey our emotions but consider that with a single movement of a tiny muscle we can demonstrate the difference between interest and disgust. Facial cues silently enrich our languages through speech illustration (raising the eyebrows when inquisitive) and cognitive pauses (pursing the lips when depicting thought). Some of these things we even do without thinking. A raised eyebrow, a curled lip, narrowed eyelids, a wrinkled nose, a furrowed brow, baring the teeth can (not all at once) express an array of emotions with very little effort. I think this is what so few video games with terrible facial animations get: the smallness and impact of facial expression. If they want to showcase realistic human emotion then they can’t treat their characters like Kabuki theater! Simple as that.

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I’ve talked quite a bit about the impressive characterizations thanks to the facial animations but there’s much more to The Last of Us’ visuals, namely the settings that the characters find themselves in. They can move a strand of hair off their forehead or wipe sweat from their brow but they do those things in masterfully crafted, highly detailed environments that look as if they have the realistic disarray of random chaos. Not once did I detect any kind of copy-and-paste going on in the backgrounds and settings. Every area, without seeming bizarrely diverse, looked different from the last, just like real life.

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No HUD or complicated UI crowds the graphics, so all you get to take in are the characters filling the screen with the shattered remains of this terrible world around them, illuminated with a superb sense of the importance of lighting, soft and diffused, not just direct. One of the great things about The Last of Us is that it’s a survival horror game which is actually well-lit.

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 Audio: 10/10
As natural as the facial animations are, the voice acting is even more so. There’s not a character in this game that devoid of personality, the kind of personality that only comes from actors delving into their characters. Clearly, they approached the project with the same determination and self-seriousness as actors would for a film with the same tone. So much is riding on emotions in The Last of Us so having the best possible voice acting must have been an essential concern. I knew at once that this game was going to feature some of the best voice acting in the gaming industry.

Beyond that, the score by Gustavo Santaolalla is a work of genius and not just because of its content but also because of its placement within the game’s presentation. “All Gone” (above) is representative of the sensation of the entire score. Silence is a big part of this game’s pacing, so when it uses music it does so with purpose. Apparently, Santaolalla, an Argentinian composer, was renown for his minimalism and he brought that approach to this game. Other compositions were created by Anthony Caruso, Andrew Buresh, and Jonathan Mayer.

The result is music that sounds like witchcraft and woods. It’s empty, hollow, trembling, steely, and abrasive but undeniably enchanting. It’s rustic and folkish without seeming unsophisticated or hipster-level pretentious. It echoes tribal rhythms for the hunters. It masks its darkest moments in brooding, reverberating shadows.

There’s a recurring motif throughout the score which represents the bulk of the soundtrack’s themes, and the music itself never seems to stray to far from it. It’s limited and it perhaps couldn’t work in a game of lesser quality and with lesser focus, but because The Last of Us essentially maintains a relentlessly depressing mood for virtually the entire game, right up to the end, the approach of crafting a limited score was the best choice. It’s as if it is the natural sounds of this ruined world.

 Gameplay: 9/10
The Last of Us occupies the survival horror niche, quite obviously. Between the cutscenes, dialogue, and exploratory areas, Joel and Ellie have to survive encounters with quarantine zone police, merciless hunters, and the infected. While the game never puts true and constant emphasis on horror, the survival aspect is present in full-force, even in the few scant boss fights which the story makes room for.

The gameplay centers around stealth, though there are several encounters where you’ll have no choice but to plow through your enemies and leave their bodies in your wake. Joel is not a sharpshooter and I felt that there was a realistic degree of sloppiness to his marksmanship. Firing weapons too often is where it gets tough because there are only so many supplies to be found as you make your way through each area. You’ll undoubtedly feel like you have to conserve every item, every strip of binding, and make every bullet count.

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Joel can craft items out of supplies he gathers and is able to make first aid kits, explosives, shivs, and Molotov cocktails among other things. A lot of his items can be deadly but they’re best reserved for emergencies. Resource management will demand that you rely on stealth where ever possible to sneak up behind enemies and take them out silently, just like Batman. Unlike Batman, though, Joel cannot rappel up the sides of buildings or glide away to escape, so players must be smart and strategic about the lay of the land and enemy patrols.

I really enjoyed the sound physics in this game. Enemy AI (ally AI, too) is ramped up pretty high in The Last of Us and part of that is their ability to hear your movements and attacks and disrupt their normal patterns to corner and flank you. The limited assortment of enemies isn’t too big a deal considering they made them so smart and sensitive to your presence. Hunters armed with guns and Clickers, who can kill you instantly, are particularly dangerous and require extreme care to navigate around and combat. Fortunately, Joel can crawl slowly and listen for the footfalls of his opponents, lighting up their silhouettes through walls and other obstacles. This was absolutely crucial to me beating the game. Though later enemies will lie in wait for you, rendering Joel’s Listen Mode worthless, I can’t imagine what it’d be like to play through the whole game on harder modes without this ability to hear.

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Almost all of Joel’s weapons are also found through the areas he and Ellie pass through: a shotgun, a bow (my favorite), even a flamethrower. Your bow and arrow is not as loud as a gun going off, so you can be sure I spammed some deadly arrows to the knee to take out enemies from a distance while being stealthy. Using these weapons at the right time is again a demand of resource management but I love how fluid the gameplay is with allowing you to reload your weapons on the move.

The structure of the game has enough in it to avoid feeling like a series of encounters interrupted by cutscenes, though there were times when yet another encounter felt somewhat wearying. What else could there be, though? At least the exploratory portions of rendered areas were great. I was surprised at the size of some of these areas, like the hotel early on in the game.

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Workbenches allow Joel to use spare parts to upgrade weapon recoil, firing rate, clip capacity and so on.

What are some things I didn’t care for? Not much, in terms of gameplay. This was a game I actually had that feeling that I couldn’t wait to get back to it. Even after it’s over, I kind of miss just playing through some of the encounters. I don’t know if I’d suffer through the depressing story just for that again, but there’s a relic of a multiplayer mode and some DLC to scratch that itch, provided it’s itchy enough to warrant scratchy.

Anyhow, things I didn’t care for. It’s no secret that I detest quick time events. I rolled my eyes as soon as I saw that first button-mashing command during the intro of the game. I have to mash a button to kick a window open. Really? What is the purpose of these? Immersion? It’s quite the opposite for me since I don’t think tapping a plastic button is anywhere close to being analogous to breaking out of a choke-hold or lifting up a warehouse door. I’m just tired of these and they seem to be more and more over-used as time goes on. There were a few moments when they helped my body flood with adrenaline but those moments were few and far between.

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Tap X to cancel out immersion!

These quick time events are really distracting but non-detracting complaints, so something which I actualy took issue with was the lack of save points or checkpoints. The game is constantly auto-saving and if you screw up you can manually restart the encounter, taking you back just a few minutes in time. Even though some areas were challenging, this hand-holding feature turned a few tense minutes into exercises in repetition. Maybe the game could’ve been made less hard but more anxious if you had to actually reach a next area in order to save, preferably manually, to ensure survival. As it stands, there were so many auto-saves I felt immortal and no threat could make me feel otherwise.

I understand that the focus was on the storytelling and not getting stuck and therefore delaying the next scene would be crucial but this is one aspect in which the inherent quirks of gameplay clashed with the needs of narrative. It’s not such a big deal, from a story standpoint, to have so much handed to you with auto-saves since that moves things along more nicely but from a gameplay perspective I think playing could’ve felt more intense and more progress could’ve been at stake if you were forced to survive for any real length of time before being able to save.

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To tidy up this Gameplay section, here are a few last things I enjoyed. No plodding tutorials, and hints were not intrusive. Swell! Thank God Ellie wasn’t talking the whole time to tell me what I should do to get to the next area. Holy roly poly, if she had told met to press triangle to climb a ladder every time… I’d have lost it. Temptation seen and avoided so high five to you, Naughty Dog.

I’d also like to see more of that L3 focus feature employed in future games. In this game, you could hit the input and turn to face whatever it is the other characters were talking about. A lot of games I play have NPCs following me around but when they mention something like “Hey, Noct! Check this out!” and I turn to look at literally dozens of interesting and intentionally placed objects, it’s somewhat frustrating. More L3 focus feature!

story Narrative: 7/10
In case you are still reading this and you haven’t played The Last of Us, I highly suggest that you skip ahead by hitting Ctrl+f and searching Cast to bypass the SPOILERS in the Narrative and Themes sections.

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Still here? Good.

It’s no secret that The Last of Us is propelled by heart stabbing emotion, beginning with Sarah’s death at the start of the game. The story is structured around the passing of seasons and the ends of Fall and Winter were of particular impact. Come to think of it, so was the end of Summer. So just about every section of the game ends with this brutal, jarring cut-to-black before the story picks up later in the year. As a narrative technique, it’s used brilliantly to move the characters ahead without having to be slowed down, and it suspends our disbelief over the pace of Joel and Ellie’s developing bond.

When I think about it, The Last of Us is less a game about a journey than it is a game centered around “scenes”. Thinking back, the most memorable moments where the cinematic scenes in the game:  being chased through alleys by the hunters’ tank, running into the infected for the first time, losing Tess, watching Henry commit suicide, taking down the sniper, escaping through Bill’s town, running into Tommy again, seeing Joel fade and thinking he’s dying in the Fall, wading through the blizzard in Winter, fighting off David in the burning restaurant, carrying Ellie down the corridors of the Fireflies’ hospital. Scenes like these punctuate and define this game, and they’re all dialed up to the max in terms of their energy and intensity.

I fully expect that a lot of The Last of Us’ moments are going to stay with me for a long time. However (and this is a big “however”), while the story of The Last of Us is often touted as one of its stand out features, if not its greatest feature, it is with this assertion that I simply must disagree. Not only did I have no profound emotional response to the game, i.e. I didn’t cry, but there were also several things in the gameplay and the presentation which took me out of the experience enough to prevent me from enjoying parts of the game and truly feeling immersed, immersed enough to take it all in in real time, divert the brain and hit the heartstrings.

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To my mind, this is somewhat of a disappointment. Given, I didn’t expect I would bawl or break into a sob over this game. I’m unconsciously put on high alert, I guess, whenever I consistently read people saying about a movie or game or book “I cried the whole time!” or “Oh the feels!” I blame that for a part of my lack of response to the (sometimes) overwrought sadness of this game, but on top of that there’s the fact that I cry often for movies but cry very much less often for games.

I shed tears at various times in my life during Homeward BoundToy Story 3Where the Wild Things AreDaylightThe Dark Knight RisesBatteries Not Included, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestThe Elephant ManThe Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the RingTitanicTo Kill a MockingbirdSchindler’s ListGrave of the FirefliesThe Wind RisesUp, Final Fantasy VII and XKingdom Hearts, and Les Miserables (the book) just to name a few examples of my emotional robustness for all those who doubt I have no heart.

Allow me to quote an excellent blogger who shares my opinion on one of the moments that’s supposed to hit home with emotions but didn’t for us:

“So passionate were the voice actors that they reportedly broke down in tears during certain takes. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the prologue. Troy Baker’s delivery as Joel helped sell the character’s deep emotional trauma, and it could very well be the most convincing death scene in any game I’ve ever played.

“The writing isn’t without its flaws, however, and the story’s first misstep occurs within that scene. Powerful though Sarah’s death scene may have been, Mr. Druckmann was in too much of a hurry to kill that character off. Consequently, we know nothing about Sarah outside of a few hints. If he wanted the death to have a real impact, he should have established why we should care about these characters before allowing the situation to spiral out of control. That way, we’re more likely to feel something when bad things happen to them. This problem could easily have been fixed by extending the prologue to develop both Joel and Sarah as characters. The developers could have then peppered this section with action sequences, culminating in a tragic scene at the end where Joel was unable to save Sarah from a surprise attack or from being infected by the deadly fungus. Instead, the significance of her death lies in the fact that she was the protagonist’s daughter and a minor to boot. It’s a heartrending, poignant, yet wholly unearned moment.”

-Red Metal, extralifereviews.com

I concur with this assessment. Sarah’s death actually left me confused, believe it or not. Going in as blind as I did with this game, I actually assumed Sarah was the same girl on the cover art, maybe with her hair dyed a different color. It’s not like I studied the cover of the game, or anything, but her death happened so quickly and under such chaotic circumstances that a character I thought would be significant turned out to be only significant as a catalyst for her father.

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The story masks over its underlying predictability by keeping the dialogue curt, playing on the audience’s easy assumptions, such as Tess saying “I get it” to Joel when we all know he’s thinking of Sarah after smuggling out Ellie. These moments are examples where the writing does excel and the game only seldom expounds rather than allows its characters to act out their stories. I appreciate that because there’s always a degree of predictability in this genre, but I felt The Last of Us circumnavigated a lot of that.

I originally suspected that Joel was going to get infected and then Ellie would be asked to execute him, or something like that which would test their bond and Ellie loving him enough to put him out of his misery rather than let him change blah blah blah blah blah of course none of that actually happened.

The ending that did happen, however, was completely less than I expected considering how many people remarked to me “Oh [deity of my choice], that ending!” So of course I expected some heart-rending loss or some tragic heroism. Instead, I got the word “Okay” and lie-detector music (thanks, Honest Game Trailers for that zinger).

I didn’t cry. What’s the payoff? Where’s the triumph? I felt like I missed something. I scoured the internet during the credits because I wondered if maybe there was a second ending that had to be unlocked or something. The game doesn’t even end in sadness. It ends on distrust, a sad thing but not sad in the sense of moving one to tears. Sad in the sense of smallness or pettiness, and this all comes back to what the game does in throwing away Joel’s character, the man we played as for most of the game’s duration who is ultimately just thrown away. Rather than sacrificing himself nobly somehow, as I expected, Joel ends up just being sacrificed. But to what? The sake of a sequel? A low view of the goodness of humanity? The refusal to put anything at all wholesome in any character in this game?

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“The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature” is the quote that opened this article but it is untrue in the context of The Last of Us. Applied to Joel it’s a downright misstatement because he never becomes Ellie’s father, not even close. I’m going to go beyond saying Joel is just a “flawed character”, nor is he some kind of “protective father figure” at the end of the game. He’s worse than any of that.

It’s almost as if he becomes Ellie’s kidnapper, like David, only his is a prison at the end of the game is made of lies and not iron bars. Also, like David, he only cares about what she represents, not just a female body but a daughter figure. A stand-in. She might as well be an object because the narrative from Joel’s perspective completely objectifies her in this way and considering everything they went through it’s completely disgusting, the last middle-finger to the player in a game with a fetish for the F-word, at times suspiciously attempting to seem more “adult” than actual adults.

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Joel doesn’t have the heart of a father by the end of the game, so essentially his story arc ends in that house in autumn when he said to Ellie: “I’m not your dad. And you sure as hell aren’t my daughter.” The game ends right there for him. Sure, he eventually went so far as to save her life and give up everything else, even a cure for humanity, to protect her but he never treated her like his own daughter: an autonomous being with personal intellect to be respected and encouraged in her independence.

Said Neil Druckmann, creative director for the game:

“We knew we wanted this arc where we started with someone whose life has been horrible for the past 20 years. He’s pretty much dead. He’s a very different person from the father you saw in the beginning of the story. He has very little humanity left him. The more time he spent with Ellie, she would pull these aspects back out of him.”

I understand that and I see that this is where the game was indeed headed. You’d guess that this is where the game was headed. This is Joel’s story and the reason why we started to like his character and the softening of his heart that allowed him to become a true protector for Ellie, who herself is a great video game character.

Druckmann:

“The reverse of that, for Ellie, would be a coming of age story. last-us-interview-neil-druckmann The more time she spends with a survivor, the more she takes on those qualities herself. All this worked toward a climactic moment where their roles would flip, both in story and in gameplay. The 14-year-old girl becomes the hero. She’s the one saving him and essentially bringing him back to life. That was our earliest intention for those characters and their arcs.

Ultimately, at least for Joel, it became this idea of exploring how far a father is willing to go to save his kid. Each step of the way is a greater sacrifice. At first, he’s willing to put his life on the line. That’s almost the easiest thing for him, where he’s at. But then he’s willing to put his friends on the line. Finally it comes to putting his soul on the line, when he’s willing to damn the rest of humanity. When he has that final lie with Ellie, he’s willing to put his relationship with Ellie on the line in order to save her.”

Save her from what? Greatness? Destiny? Salvation for humanity? Certainly not from living a lie and wasting her existence in a game that constantly tries to remind you that “everything happens for a reason.”

He said “it became this idea of exploring how far a father is willing to go to save his kid” but I’ve got to ask, did Druckmann even have a father? Was he an abusive one? Where did he get this concept that Joel is treating Ellie like his own daughter, because who would do the horrific things he did for Ellie for their own children? I would kill if I had to to protect my sons but I wouldn’t maliciously torture someone for them, and make no mistake, there is a massive difference between survival instincts and sadism. Joel represents the latter and he never escapes it. Don’t be taken in by his Southern accented charms or his affection for physical abuse.

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I’m a father and I know several fathers, and I know that fathers don’t blatantly lie to control and manipulate their own children to selfishly preserve them in a glass box, completely ignoring their own wishes and mutilating anyone that could ever take them away to do good in the world. It dawned on me that Joel would almost be the equivalent of a father slaughtering members of the military to prevent his daughter from enlisting in the armed forces (or even knowing about enlisting) for a dangerous war, and in that case there may be no widespread analogy to him in the real world at all! Consider that he protected her merely for himself. That’s not love, love which fatherhood is predicated on. Love is selfless. Joel’s actions are entirely selfish, they have been since Sarah’s death, and they never stop being selfish even by the conclusion of the game. This whole sweeping epic of a game and nothing changes in Joel.

Now the obvious rebuttal to this is: “Yes of course Joel is a hypocrite. Nobody ever said he was the ‘good guy’.” That’s true. Usually defenders have said to me that the hyperviolence and the depressing setting and the hypocritical character(s) are part of art that’s making a statement, which is important for art to do. Yeah, that’s fine but what’s this important statement that The Last of Us makes? That human beings suck? It doesn’t take art to convince anyone of that.

The rebuttal continues: “Joel’s character is flawed which gives us insight into human nature. Hypocrites are just the way we are. We are selfish.” I agree with this as well but my point of contention is that the existence of an occasional flawed father in real life certainly doesn’t necessitate Joel being an immoral monster, apparently irredeemably so as far as this one game is concerned. Real world dead beat dads (or serial killers) may provide the possibility for a character like Joel’s to exist in a story like this but they don’t automatically prescribe that he have incomplete character development, which to my mind is not the mark of competent writing or of a particularly stable or even healthy view of human society and family life.

Characters must grow and mature and develop over the course of stories. We all know this. This is why Ellie is such a better character, but clearly the story is not about her. I almost could wish it was because she starts off as a distrusting little girl with a mouth and turns into this pillar of strength, a savior and truly selfless protector, notably without sacrificing her femininity or turning into some over-macho action hero. We see that coming-of-age arc that Druckmann mentioned when she goes from teenager to responsible adult with her own dependent: Joel after his injury. Ellie is one of the gaming industry’s great female heroines.

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Fundamentally, we understand the difference between characters that go from point A to point B and characters which don’t move at all, which remain unchanged, and in The Last of Us there’s the perfect and unfortunate example of both. We call those cardboard cut outs.

In Joel’s case, what’s the most interesting thing about him? That he’s from Texas? That his daughter died tragically at a young age? That he became a smuggler? That he’s willing to commit any atrocity to get what he wants? All of the information we get about Joel in the game merely informs us that he was once a sympathetic victim who became an unrelenting and selfish psychopath, and that information never evolves. That’s it. He never changes. The most significant thing about Joel is he lost his daughter twenty years ago but he apparently learned nothing from that loss in terms of development or heck, the sanctity of life because at the end of the game you the player are forced to be in Joel’s body when you make him gun down an unarmed surgeon who only wanted to find a cure for humanity, and that’s one of the most sickening things that a game has ever made me do.

That “shock value” act doesn’t make the game great merely by its presence nor does it make Joel great as a character for being forced to do it. This is a moment in the game in which its existence as a game interposed interactivity between myself the player and the cinematic experience to completely remove me from being immersed, because I didn’t want Joel to kill the surgeon since I didn’t see or agree with his point of view but unlike in a film where I could’ve watched a character like him commit the crime on their own, I actually had to make him commit the despicable act against my own will (unless I chose not to finish the game). The interactivity itself broke immersion and removed any empathy I had for the character. Though Joel ran down that pediatric hallway, bearing an unconscious Ellie in his arms and tenderly cooing “baby girl” to her, I’d already stepped away from his character entirely.

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Essentially Joel’s no different than the faceless grunt who gunned down the innocent Sarah at the start of the game, and Joel’s loss becomes a catalyst only for bitterness and selfishness and nothing else. What makes this even more disgusting is that it does nothing to honor the bond between Joel and Ellie that the game spent hours creating.

To have come so far with Joel and to have seen him go nowhere is truly repellent without being pitiable. He’s not like characters who don’t learn anything from their journeys and end up in tragedies, because his journey just ends with a whimper. And the fact that the game forces its interactivity upon you and makes you the player complicit in his murder, failure, and lack of character development is what makes the ending anything but profound. It makes it flat. I mean, at least I didn’t have to “tap X to lie to Ellie’s face” but it is only sad that a father lost his daughter and is projecting upon a girl who is not his “baby girl” no matter how many times he says it to himself, and that’s it. Nothing comes of it. It makes the whole journey worth nothing and amount to nothing. It makes Joel less human. It makes this story that is about him (of course it’s about him!) go nowhere. Why cherish this character at all? Why say he’s a great character in gaming? Because he tortures prisoners? Because he kills unarmed people? Because he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants? This makes him detestable and hateful, not worthy of remembrance. The role reversal of making the protagonist a villain isn’t enough of a gimmick to warrant the game getting perfect scores.

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Rather than a full-fledged character, Joel’s reduced to patently obvious marketing for the inevitable sequel for a game this successful, a fourth-wall-breaking billboard of a human being. His actions become slaves to universe building, that haunting promise of a future cash cow necessitated by this game’s profits and demanded in advance by its creators, apparently. Will we eventually see Joel pay for his lie to Ellie with her distrust toward him? Probably, but actually I’m expecting they’ll just kill off his character because at this point his death will probably mean a lot more than his life has.

Fitting that the game ends with Ellie saying the word “Okay”, since that’s exactly what I thought of its conclusion.

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In a game that’s supposed to feature a realistic and adult world, there’s very little real and adult about the end of Joel’s journey. This is all barring the sequel of course, but should we force ourselves to become accustomed to sequels tidying up after their predecessors? I got into so much of the game’s story in this incredibly dark world but Joel’s character was a big disappointment at the end. If a game is going to take itself this seriously then it should be able to withstand serious criticism.

message Themes: 9/10
While portions of the narrative were enough to put me on the fence about how I felt about the game in general, I did think there were some very complex themes, complexity being a mark of content being “adult” rather than just throw swear words around all the time.

Loss of innocence is tremendous in Last of Us. “There’ll come a day when kids can just be kids again” one character muses. One of the scenes I’ll always remember is when young Sam cannot take the toy robot with him, Henry reminding him that there’s no room for something like that in his life with so much riding on practicality and survival. That’s moving. Even children are pushed into a life of extreme frugality, and though Ellie shows a kind gesture to Sam by giving him the toy, which she smuggled, in a later scene, Sam is infected and he turns the next morning to attack her.

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Note that this is the only infected child in the whole game, at least any prominent one. I think that’s no mistake. Loss of innocence is a part of the game but so is this concept of purity. Ellie is young and she shows a swath of purity in her selflessness later on in Winter. The purity of Sarah’s memory and death is a motivator for Joel’s callousness. There are few children in the game. In one scene (that was hard to stomach and I had to turn the system off for the night), bodies of children are discovered lying under a blanket with the words scrawled on the floor beside an adult’s body: “They didn’t suffer”, meaning they were killed before they could be infected.

Next, I’m convinced that the creators at Naughty Dog have a bleak view of humanity, if their work is of any testament. The game has a very bleak outlook on human nature with little in the way of goodness: the story is told of people standing up against the hunter factions in the beginning and being killed for doing so by a mob; Joel is reluctant to care for Ellie at first and even refuses to stop for a family with a child when the first infections occur. One of the notes by “Ish” talks about having faith in humanity, that we’re still capable of good but even by the end of the game this isn’t something that the creators appear to believe in, to the point of being ludicrous. How would anyone still be alive twenty years after the outbreak if there’s so much frivolity about killing in the world of The Last of Us? Everyone kills each other so easily and without a moment’s hesitation that it starts to fly in the face of humanity surviving at all, or at least questioning why they should survive at all. Without any sanctity of human life, then why go on living other than for reasons of pure selfishness? And that’s Joel’s entire character right there but it’s a depraved perspective.

Only a few sparks of hope in the purity of children prevents the entire story from being overwhelmingly bleak, though it’s borderline. While the “Us and Them” mentality pervades the game, perhaps influencing the title, there are symbols of innocent joy to be found. Late in the game, Ellie spots giraffes with delight and she pauses to idly watch them before Joel, the adult, breaks away to begin their journey again, Ellie following. When she does, the last giraffe disappears into the distance. Her delight and any semblance of the idleness of childhood disappears with them.

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There is I’m sure a lot more to talk about in terms of themes in The Last of Us, but we’re approaching encyclopedic scale with this review. It’s over 9000. Words. Besides, there are far better researched and more talented writers out there with a firmer handle on these themes whose work your should hunt down.

I was interested by the recurring imagery of the color wheels in drawings, toys and paintings around houses, and also the chess sets I kept running into. I could guess that maybe the color wheels were hints at Ellie’s orientation but that’s only a guess.

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cast Cast: 10/10
This is one of the best acted games of all time. I’m sure it’s a combination of high quality direction and actors, as well as access to technology in order to capture and convey these performances in video game format. This may not be something that would change the world in cinema but in gaming the work of these actors was revolutionary. The actors didn’t just “do voices”. They came in for motion capture performances and you can tell the difference between voice actors reading a script in a sound booth compared to the energy of actors seeing other actors’ faces and moving around to portray their parts.

Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, who contributed ideas for their characters as well as their performances of them, are stand out examples of the possibilities that can be reached with gaming actors. I knew Baker most recently as the Joker in Arkham Origins and Snow in Final Fantasy XIII, but he transformed for this role and sounded completely different from any other I was familiar with. Both Baker and Johnson gave completely believable performances. I actually started to worry that they made an actual 14-year-old cuss as much as Ellie did, but Johnson was an adult.

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There’s not a single other character in the game that had that hokey feeling of putting on a stereotypical voice symptomatic of video game voice acting. I think of that fetch-quest dude in Galdin Quay in FFXV with the most ridiculous east coast accent ever and I’m so thankful that none of that ham-fistery made it into The Last of Us. Taking the acting seriously paid off.

unique Uniqueness: 8/10
There’s a lot of fatigue in the entertainment world. Over the past few years we’ve seen trends turning creative ideas into dead horses to beat. Remember when everything was about penguins? Penguin fatigue. How about pirate fatigue? FPS fatigue? We’re even seeing mounting superhero film fatigue. One of my personal anti-favorites is zombie fatigue: for a while it seemed like everything was going to turn out to be about zombies. It was enough to make rotting corpses off-putting. I know, what a shock.

I’ve just about checked out of every zombie apocalypse story there is, and while I shrugged off The Last of Us upon its release and subsequent ironically zombie-like devotion by the masses, I’m glad I finally came around and had the chance to experience this game. What an experience it is. The characters and world have an impact and intensity that’s unforgettable.

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pgrade My Personal Grade: 8/10
All that said, the question remains whether I actually enjoyed it or not. I didn’t hate it but I don’t love it, either. That’s because I can’t say, especially as a parent now, that I “enjoyed” or was entertained by the awful things in this game like children being executed or a minor almost being raped. Those thoughts are intolerable to me in the magnitude of their injustice.

The immediate response to this is the one which likely popped into your head just now, especially if you’re one who had an emotional response to this game and are quick to defend that very personal experience, validating your perspective. “Art is meant to show us life and that means even the worst parts about humanity”. That response is valid and true, let me be clear in saying so. Art takes a variety of forms and covers any subject imaginable, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy or have to enjoy every art form or every subject covered. Some subjects are just too extreme either in content or presentation to appeal to me: the torture porn film genre, slasher horror stories, and quite a variety of rated M video games.

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Of course real life horrors really do happen and terrible deaths really do occur, tragically, but clearly that doesn’t necessitate that I must enjoy or be entertained by their portrayal in media as a statement of reality, nor does it prove that The Last of Us must exist. I can’t be entertained by some of its content, in fact.

This has nothing to do with the question of whether the extreme examples mentioned above are art or not but everything to do with the reception of the perceiver, which is me in this case since this is my article and I played this game. My perception of The Last of Us is that it is a forcefully told story, a work of art in its skillful craftsmanship and presentation, with some of the greatest voice acting and facial animations I’ve ever seen but with some flaws in character development and immersion, possessing an emotional sharpness pervading the entire experience that will surprise, shock, and haunt (but maybe not bring you to tears).

Am I excited for the sequel? I’m interested in seeing what happens to these characters. I’d be interested to find out if Joel changes at all or if they just kill him off, but I’m not excited at the prospect of diving into the violence and filth of humanity again. And, please, my philosophy specifically for gaming doesn’t have anything to do with my not wanting to see the world as it is, or wishing everything was sugar and saccharine, so please don’t accuse me of that. Mine is not some kind of escapism.

There’s this overarching mentality in modern gaming that I’m speaking against: the story is not better simply because its characters swear constantly or because it depicts near sexual assault. Think of this as equating to the kinds of films that always win Best Picture without fail because of their tenor and tone. Looking back, I wonder why so many people assured me that the ending was this fount of emotion, why this game was resoundingly the greatest there could ever be…

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Citizen Kane? Really?

Merely throwing the worst things in real life into a video game and calling it art doesn’t solely make a game great, right? There were some moments in The Last of Us when I felt like this was the case, when the developers were trying to impress me with shocking content, just like kids ironically pretending to be mature. Was there nobody present on the development team who could say the words “Dial it back just a smidge, Mack”? Take out even half of the most extreme situations and scenes in the game and it would still be demonstrably “adult”. Further, it would have a mark of adult storytelling, namely nuance.

Fortunately, there’s enough excellence in The Last of Us to make the unsettling stuff worth wading through but I refuse to say The Last of Us is great because it showed that games can be “adult”. That’s not what made this game amazing. Not only were there other games before it that did show that games could be adult via complexity or subtlety (something foreign to Last of Us) but those games were able to do so without appealing to the most graphic content possible, which in this game is used to such frequent effect that watching the protagonist get his face torn off by a Clicker for the hundredth time or brutalizing another stranger becomes desensitizing rather than shocking, especially in cutscenes.

The Last of Us is disturbing. This is where I get off the train because I come to video games uniquely to have fun, more so than in coming to film or literature. As a family man, I also approach gaming with the vision of its sociability and sharing in its experiences with my wife and children, but this is clearly not a game I’d show to my kids. Psh I probably wouldn’t even show it to my wife. I love her too much to be this depressed. My gaming philosophy is why I gravitate toward the games I choose. Best of all, you can’t argue against my philosophy because it’s my personal preference. It’s why I love that “magical” feeling some games achieve in their simplicity, style, and beauty. But there’s little beautiful about The Last of Us (moments but only a few) and while seriousness in gaming is nothing I take issue with, I’m sure I don’t want to fill my life with disturbing things and thoughts.

Should you play The Last of Us? Definitely, if you can stomach it’s intensities and you don’t mind the possibility of having no emotional reaction to an immensely popular game that makes you feel somewhat isolated. It’s one of the most potent games I’ve ever experienced, a game which is very much unlike other gaming experiences I’ve had before the 2010’s. I can appreciate it for what it is but it’s too unsavory, too unlovely to champion. You will likely never forget it, just as I expect that I won’t, but even then this is not something that I plan on going through again, playing new game plus, grabbing all the goodies, or popping every trophy. I know several people who swear by it, but this is a story that I’ve taken in once and once is plenty.

That’s no slight to the game itself. The Last of Us is just that powerful, a fact which cannot be denied.

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Aggregated Score: 9.0

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61 thoughts on “The Last of Us (2013)

  1. Your review certainly lived up to the hype I had for it! 🙂 You did a great job expressing your thoughts. You already know how I feel about this game from our Discord discussion. So yes, I did have an emotional response to the final scene because of a personal connection I saw. I was very depressed after I played this game and I immediately started playing a cheerful Mario game, haha. I’m not sure if I’m ready to go back into this disturbing world for a sequel yet.

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    • Whew! It’s been a heckuva time trying to respond to some of these thoughtful and lengthy comments here, so I’m sorry it took me a bit to get to yours! Thanks so much for reading this marathon of an article. I’m glad that people were patient enough to take in my points while also feeling the need to express theirs politely and courteously. I just love this WordPress community! If depression, or more accurately being disturbed, is an emotion then I guess you could say that I did have an emotional response to that ending after all. But it certainly was one which drove me away from the game and its characters, specifically Joel, and not towards appreciating it more. I’m playing through Oceanhorn now, so thank God the gaming industry is big enough to support games of all kinds. I’m also going to give the sequel some time, but also for reasons regarding hype.

      What do you think about this story being a movie instead of a game? Do you think that would’ve changed my perspective (if you could make that assessment), or do you think it could’ve made it work differently? How did you feel about the game giving you (as Joel) no other alternative other than to kill the surgeon, doom humanity, lie to Ellie in order to rescue her?

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      • WordPress is the one place on the internet with civil people, haha. You’ve got quite a lot of great discussions going here. I’d say depression, or being disturbed, counts as an emotional response.

        Speaking from my perspective, if the Last of Us was just a movie instead of a game, I would not have had the same emotional responses. I spent hours trudging through this depressing world and interacting with the horrors as Joel (even if he’s dead inside, he’s still someone). If I was just shown the events in a 2 hour-ish movie, I would not have felt the same connection to the world. I’m appalled by what I made Joel do during that last scene. The outcome is the same no matter what the player does, but my emotional response to the situation had me on edge. In my mind I was like: “We have to save Ellie!”, and just like Joel, that’s all that mattered to me. Looking back with a clear mind, I think Joel’s decision was purely selfish, I hate what he did to Marlene (nothing can justify that to me), and I consider him a cold hearted murderer now. I also think Ellie would have wanted to sacrifice herself to save humanity. I’m interested to see what happens in the sequel. It will be a long time after it’s out before I play it though.

        I do really like the idea of a Last of Us musical. The video you shared on Discord was amazing 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • The Last of Us on Broadway, that’d be very interesting indeed. I also think that the whole thing he did to Marlene, who was entrusted with protecting Ellie by Ellie’s mother, made Joel essentially a kidnapper as well for lying and slaughtering to take Ellie out of Marlene’s care when Marlene had entrusted Joel to care for Ellie temporarily. She was not his daughter. Ah anyway, this game! Haha so many strong opinions. I do so love our WordPress community and I’ll forever point to the comments on this post as being exemplary of the kind of civil discussion our world needs. Thanks for being a part of that yourself!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. The Last of Us is not on my list of top ten favourite games, but I’m glad I played it. I don’t particularly enjoy horror, and the zombie genre in particular leaves me cold. This, however, was different. I think I may have had a different relationship with the character of Joel than you had as—somewhat sadly—I could relate to where he was coming from. He had been reduced to a shell of a man in much the same way as the hunters, the hunted and the infected. I liked Naughty Dog’s portrayal of this deeply flawed individual as it showed him choosing to do good, even if wasn’t always for the best reasons. It’s interesting to me that he chose to help Ellie for selfish reasons at the beginning of the story (gotta get the weapons cache back) and then chose to help her for… well, selfish reasons at the end (I don’t care if humanity dies—I can’t be without her). Does this make him unlovely in the extreme? Absolutely. I do, however, tend to find this kind of story far more compelling than if he had made all the right choices at the end in order to make the narrative a bit more neat and palatable (not that I’m saying that you’re saying this). I think stories like this tend to force me to engage with myself more honestly, to assess my own motives and agendas in everyday life. Am I really being as selfless as I think I am? Isn’t it worth doing good anyway, even knowing that my motives are wrong? Can good still arise from such emotional ugliness? I feel that the story in The Last of Us challenges us to think about that. Perhaps it’s a parable about learning to care, even as we make the wrong choices (which all of us inevitably will at some point or another). We can’t wait for our inner and outer worlds to align perfectly in order to act. There is only now and our incomplete selves. Man, I’m getting a bit existential there, so I’ll stop. Suffice to say, when I put the controller down at the end of the game, I did cry, and it was cathartic. Anyway, while I might respectfully disagree with you on some elements of the game’s characterisations and narrative, I can see that you’ve given an honest and nuanced assessment that I wish there was more of in gaming journalism. And, no, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that what you’ve created here is a fine piece of gaming journalism. It was an absolute pleasure to read. Please, keep it up, my friend. It’s absolutely worthwhile, and has merit.

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    • Your first sentence captures my thoughts on the game. It’s of obvious quality but I didn’t particularly enjoy its character arcs, the ending, its gratuitous moments, and the way interactivity in a game got in the way of their storytelling. That’s where we’ll have to respectfully disagree but we can agree that it was a game of high caliber. I can see the point about the Last of Us encouraging self-reflection on selflessness versus selfishness. I just happen to think that Joel went so far out of my reach, and immersion in his character, that it would’ve been better suited to a movie when I wouldn’t be forced to do things through him that I felt were insane. He represents more than just hypocrisy or selfishness, to me he’s more like someone who just went off the deep end. That seems needlessly dark for where Joel’s arc was going for almost the entire game.

      Thank you for your exceeding kindness in saying such things about my article! I appreciate you reading and expressing yourself with such courtesy. You’re an inspiration to me to do the same, even when I disagree with someone. Civil discourse can save our generation!

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      • I remember you saying in our recent discussions that at the end of the day ‘games are games’. It would be a sad day if we were to get into biffo territory over something like that, my friend. It looks like everyone else here has the same attitude too. You’ve got a fine group of readers around you here, Red. (Can I call you Red?) 😛

        Liked by 1 person

        • Feel free to call me whatever you like but I’ve been called a lot worse than “Red” before! I like it, as an online moniker. 🙂

          I can’t take credit for this readership and I’m sure thankful that they are so thoughtful and courteous! You’re a part of that, too, so thank you to you as well. Sadly, I’ve been a part of many conversations which came to verbal fisticuffs over opinions on games, many times due to my instigation and short-sighted self-importance, but that’s something I’ve been trying to work on.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this game! It was a very fun post to read. I too played this despite it not being my typical game type. I avoid zombie games or anything of the like because I find that the payoff of the game doesn’t compare to the months of my imagination running wild any time I’m outside by myself. This being said, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Last of Us. I tag-teamed it with my husband so that I didn’t have to play the more stressful parts, of course.

    I did have a few thoughts to add to the narrative section of this review. You mention that Joel takes the autonomy away from Ellie in the end of the game by lying to her about the true nature of what happened at the hospital. This is very true, and an excellent point. I hadn’t thought about that aspect of the game’s ending lie.
    Rather than detracting from the narrative, for me, this adds to it. If I recall (without playing the game again right this moment), their whole journey starts out with a similar lack of autonomy. Ellie doesn’t have a choice in going with Joel. She’s just supposed to go with him. And Joel doesn’t care if she wants to or not, he just has to deliver her. He makes it clear throughout the beginning of the journey that once she’s delivered, he’s done with her.
    As the story progresses, Joel begins to form a connection with Ellie and eventually starts to recognize that despite the chaos and wretched state of the world (and humanity, apparently), Ellie is a pretty cool human and he begins to trust and love her.
    As they near their destination, I seem to remember him giving her the option to turn back, to take a different course. She decides to continue forward. Now, if memory serves, the Firefly group makes it sound like Ellie will be fine after the operation. When Joel learns that this is not true, his faith in humanity (which Ellie restored at least a little, healing the gaping wound left by losing his daughter) is shattered once again. He finds himself in the process of losing another daughter, and sees the monstrous lie that the Fireflies handed to the pair of them. The revelation shakes his world back down to what it had been at the start of the game. Joel goes into grizzled survivor mode again and, determined not to lose Ellie, loses all control and rips through the hospital to rescue her.
    When he denies Ellie autonomy in the end, he is still acting under this reborn sense of preservation. He saw that giving her autonomy put her in grave danger at the hands of people who were supposedly going to do no harm. Taking away her choice seems like the only way to save her. Besides that, he already knows that his relationship with her is on the line no matter what he does. If she finds out the truth, they are toast. But what would have happened if he told her the truth? “Honestly, your life could have saved humanity but I decided that you were more valuable as a person than as a cure and now humanity might be doomed because you matter. Live with that for the rest of however long we have left.” Not only would this have destroyed their relationship, but think about what it would have done to Ellie.
    So the long and short of it is that this is a narrative in which we see great change in Joel, only to see him revert to his former self at the critical moment, change entirely revoked. Stories where change occurs and is lost, or where change is offered and refused don’t happen often, but they are intriguing when they do! It makes me look forward to the next chapter in their story. Will Joel have a shot at reclaiming his change, or is he stuck like this now?
    Anyway, thanks again for this post! Sorry I left you a small novel in the comments!

    Liked by 5 people

    • I love small novel comments! I’m only sorry it takes me so long to respond to them. I’ve been working through these in order and this has been a tough game to express my thoughts on, especially in response to the thoughtful commenters who stopped by. I’m interested to hear that you’re not a “zombie junkie” either. Playing through this game for the first time, I’m glad that it didn’t really feel like a constant zombie game. I don’t think I remember them even using the word “zombie” at all.

      I should clarify that the lie, and the moments leading up to it, don’t necessarily “detract” from the narrative for me. Rather, those last scenes and Joel’s completely insane decisions right up at the end, which I wouldn’t make and didn’t agree with, or even see coming in his arc, ensured that any immersion and investment I had in the character evaporated and Joel became just completely repelling and disgusting to me. I hoped for a lot more with his character and I felt his actions ruined the catalyst for his character, threw dirt on his daughter’s death, and objectified Ellie (a great character) as his “stand in”. It’s one thing to have a flawed character, tragedies are filled with them, but it’s another thing for a character to make a 180′ right at the end of the game and throw the player for an unexpected loop, presumably for shock factor or to make a statement about the depravity of humanity (those two being the chief defenses I’ve received for this game’s ending). The result for me was not moving, not really even shocking, but disappointing and unimpressive. I didn’t feel like the ending was earned, turning a man who’d suffered great loss into an obsessive maniac is about as revolting and hopelessly depressing as anyone could imagine, and maybe that’s why they went with that ending, which to me smacks of the complaint I made that TLoU occasionally seems like it’s trying to be more “adult” than its story demanded.

      “As the story progresses, Joel begins to form a connection with Ellie and eventually starts to recognize that despite the chaos and wretched state of the world (and humanity, apparently), Ellie is a pretty cool human and he begins to trust and love her.” This is what we all saw coming and I think the ending throws that in the dumpster and lights it on fire. In the end, it’s apparent that Joel doesn’t treat Ellie as a human with free will or autonomy, nor does he even trust her so he lies to her rather than tell her the truth, and finally those things really make it clear that he absolutely does not love her at all. Imagine if I took away free will and lied to my children? Would you say I loved them as a good father? Or would you say I was just using them to make myself feel good? That’s using others, not loving them.

      “As they near their destination, I seem to remember him giving her the option to turn back, to take a different course. She decides to continue forward.” You are correct here, so thanks for pointing that out. This is possibly the last glimmer of real love and humanity in Joel, giving her one last option.

      “Now, if memory serves, the Firefly group makes it sound like Ellie will be fine after the operation. When Joel learns that this is not true, his faith in humanity (which Ellie restored at least a little, healing the gaping wound left by losing his daughter) is shattered once again.” This is actually different than it plays out in the game. You can rewatch the scene on YouTube. Joel wakes in the Firefly base and 30 seconds later he finds out that Ellie is being prepped for surgery on her brain to remove the infection, which Marlene informs will kill her. Joel flips out. Marlene leaves. Joel tortures and kills guard. Joel slaughters the Firefly battalion. Joel kills the surgeon to rescue Ellie, dooming mankind. Joel flees through the hospital muttering “baby girl” to himself like a madman. Joel kills Marlene. Joel drives away with Ellie and lies to her. Joel and Ellie climb up a ridge toward Tommy’s and Joel reiterates his lie. It’s shocking but unimpressive and unearned, because Joel just flips and loses his mind at the last few scenes and throws away the entire game. I liked a lot about this game but I’ll never appreciate this ending since it throws away his character, ruins his arc, trashes the bond we both cherished between he and Ellie, smells suspiciously of sequelitis, and it’s ethically and morally reprehensible, especially for a man who was at first so pitiable.

      “He saw that giving her autonomy put her in grave danger at the hands of people who were supposedly going to do no harm. Taking away her choice seems like the only way to save her.” Save her for himself. That’s the key. He is exactly the same as David at that point, except he’s interested in her as a daughter-figure stand-in and not her as an object for sex. That’s markedly better, obviously, but it still renders her less a human being than an object, a plot device as far as Joel’s concerned, and that’s again a shame considering how good of a strong female character Ellie is. He could’ve been noble and told her the truth, that he wanted to protect her, and give her the option to do what she wanted to do with her own life, but instead he torches everything, including their relationship anyway, considering she sounded like she suspected the truth. Rephrase “Honestly, your life could have saved humanity but I decided that you were more valuable as [a thing that makes me feel better and helps me cope with my personal loss] than as a cure and now humanity might be doomed because you matter. Live with that for the rest of however long we have left.”

      Ellie might have accepted that Joel wanted to save her life but she could respect that he’d give her the opportunity to decide what she’d want to do with herself, if he’d allowed her, couldn’t she? Are there many other characters that go as far as Joel only to throw it all away at the very last moment in a fit of madness? How earned would you feel the ending of Lord of the Rings would be if Frodo didn’t throw in the ring and Gollum didn’t do it for him? As for where the story goes from here, check out the comment by Red Metal here. I agree with him and I think they’ll probably just kill him off for more points in the “hopelessly sad” department. The Last of Us was relentless, powerful in its presentation, but not a piece of art that makes any valuable statement or treats its characters in any respectful or sensible way, so far as I’m concerned. I do appreciate the comment and I hope I haven’t expressed myself too strongly. Someone else here said that this game forms strong opinions, so there’s that to its credit at least!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha I love your rephrase. That was a pretty good addition!
        I think that overall, the conclusion that I eventually found that made me feel like the ending was earned was that it seemed to me like a depiction of overcoming trauma. Joel loses his daughter, but he doesn’t just lose her. He witnesses her be shot by someone who should have been in a position to protect her. He held her while she died, and listened to her frightened sobs before she fell still in his arms. A life-altering trauma, to be sure. Trauma like that can drastically change someone’s personality, as we see in Joel in the beginning of the game. And of course, the game does a lot of healing for him up until he finds himself in the same situation. Just like with his daughter, he finds Ellie in a situation where someone in a position to protect her is ready to kill her. It’s a huge betrayal, but also a trigger moment.
        Now, there are two ways this could have gone. One, Joel overcomes the trauma of the past and tries to rescue Ellie, possibly without killing people. But he knows he has next to no time to save her. The other way is the one that plays out: Joel lapses back into the traumatic moment when his daughter died. The stress triggers the hardened man from the beginning to spring to life as a defense. Humans naturally try to protect themselves from trauma just like they do from physical pain.
        In trauma mode, Joel lapses into a self that has only one goal: stop the pain. He has to stop Ellie from dying no matter what. After, he does not manage to remove himself from damage-control mode. He stats in it, something that likely becomes apparent to Ellie.
        The 180 that entirely diverts his changes fascinates me. Stories are stories because something has to change, but the character has to take that change and accept it. Joel doesn’t. Perhaps it’s this that makes me feel like the ending, though not entirely satisfying, was earned. And I agree, it does open the sequel nicely. But I got the sense that it’s because this story isn’t over yet. Joel failed his opportunity to change. Now it is Ellie’s turn to take the story forward. I look forward to that.
        As a parting thought, I enjoyed imagining a similar twist in LoTR. But then I started thinking and I decided that it wouldn’t feel right because it would come out of nowhere. Frodo doesn’t have a significant trauma in his past that has shaped his personality for decades. He just lived in the Shire. Granted, his experiences upon leaving the Shire are quite traumatic, and almost make him abandon ship at the end. His trauma is fresh, but it isn’t so imbedded in him that facing a new threat is going to send him into a survival-driven madness to escape it. It helps that his final push isn’t a mirror of the traumas he faces, and that his particular traumas are not as destructive as holding your daughter while she dies.
        Thanks for the conversation! It’s really great to see your perspectives. I’m not a dad, so the ending didn’t strike as strong of a personal chord with me as it did for you!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I definitely see the impetus and catalyst for Joel in that trauma and that made him a character I cared about for a lot of the game. I personally think he went too far (not just in murdering but in torturing, and eventually keeping the truth from Ellie) to really say he loved Ellie at the end, which is tragic in my eyes but as you’re pointing out here it’s also one that isn’t unheard of or unexplainable from a natural, protective, trauma-related perspective. I didn’t necessarily think that Joel’s actions were unexplainable so much as repulsive, especially considering I think he threw away his bond with Ellie in the end, the central thing that was beautiful about this game. ANYWAYS… I’ve gone on for so long and I’m sure I’m just repeating myself. Haha! I appreciate the conversations, too! And thanks for your niceness during it all. There’s also a lot of very smart people here and I just can’t keep up! These comments prove that people can express their disagreements without resorting to name calling, on the internet no less! O_O

          Liked by 1 person

  4. SPOILERS
    The ending to me was never emotional, and I’m not sure if it was to most people either. Maybe it’s how fans have a hard time expressing it is what made you go into it expecting an emotional ending because all most could say without spoiling it is “Wow!” And these types of zombie apocalypse stories are typical and a lot end in some kind of sob-story, so that could have been another factor. Perhaps a number of fans did try to say that it was emotional, but when I try to explain the ending without spoiling it, it’s more that I’m trying to express shock. The ending is shocking, and I think that’s what a lot of fans are trying to get at. It’s shocking how the story just ends with revealing how extremely selfish and manipulative Joel is. He’s a character arc of the Biblical type. You don’t have to necessarily agree with him either. Unless you’re like some of the apathetic teenagers I saw in the Teens React to The Last of Us finale, which surprised me at the extent to which teens would make awful decisions. Then again, hardly any of us made great decisions or had very many good ideas when we were teens.

    On to the next point: I think the game is not about whether or not you were entertained or enjoyed, but the emotional reaction you have to it. Not every video game has to be enjoyable or entertaining, but I understand if that’s what you personally want out of a video game because this medium is more work than a movie or novel. But games like this are attempting to get more out of you the way films and novels do. The Last of Us is survival horror, like Alien: Isolation. Do you enjoy Alien: Isolation overall? Not really, because it’s supposed to emulate the feeling of fear and dread. Arkham Asylum is a game you praised for it’s claustrophobic moments, and that’s not a feeling people like either. So I don’t believe games are meant to be purely enjoyment or entertainment. It’s putting you in the shoes of a protagonist to experience something stressful and challenging that you couldn’t otherwise. The overall emotion you seem to be experiencing is disgust, and it is a completely reasonable reaction. You are disgusted and horrified at the lack of humanity this world of this game expresses, but when the our species is dying off, there’s not much left than a survival instinct. It’s not a fun experience, but maybe it’s an important one.

    Like you said with movies: there are movies that are miserable like Schindler’s List and Grave of the Fireflies. There are miserable movies like the torture porn types too, but those are just gratuitous, and don’t have any redeemable qualities. The miserable movies that have purpose are the ones where you learn something important. I saw a movie recently called Come and See, and it may be the most horrific movie I’ve seen yet that wasn’t gratuitous. It drains you in it’s neorealistic depiction of WWII, and while I can’t say I look forward to seeing it again, I can say I learned a thing or two about humanity– what we’re capable of doing and withstanding, but maybe that’s something I already knew too. Movies like these make you more empathetic to contemporary situations, because what you see on the news echoes what happened then, and to learn empathy may be the most important about us. That’s why I believe reading books, watching movies, or playing video games simply for escapism is extremely limiting (I am not accusing for subscribing to escapism btw). From art like this you’re supposed to take away an opinion, connect or understand others, and think how differently you would done things. You took away a strong opinion, and I think that’s the most important thing. Video games are attempting that nowadays, and it’s not something the medium is used to.

    But hey, that’s just a theory, a GAME theory.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Oh I can just hear that dudes snarky voice in my head now, thanks. Actually, thanks for taking the time to read all these words and leaving a thoughtful response of your own. I know you understand the points I’ve tried to make.

      So here are some of the things I heard when friends, colleagues, peers, tweeters, and fellow writers found out I was playing through the Last of Us. I got a lot of “the ending made me cry for hours” and “the feels from that ending” and things like that. I won’t blame my reaction to the ending on the hype or feedback that people gave me about it before I experienced it, but that said I certainly did go in expecting at least an ending that was some kind of massive tragedy. Considering the sadness of a lot of this game’s scenes, that’s what I was expecting, a sob-story, right up until the credits rolled. That’s why I felt like I’d missed something enough to immediately jump online and see if I got the “bad ending” for not completing an in-game task or something along those lines. I completely see your perspective that the ending was shocking. That’s an apt way to describe it. For me, it was shocking without being moving, without emotional impact, so it seemed brutal just to be brutal with Joel lying to Ellie to keep her for himself. I went back and rewatched the ending again shortly after and I still felt it was just lackluster, illustrating Joel’s selfishness and that’s it. Maybe launching the need for a sequel, too. At this point, I have to ask why it is that articulate and intelligent people I know expressed the ending in this way? Maybe they actually were saddened by it? The disconnect of immersion from not seeing things through Joel’s eyes anymore, since he went in a sudden direction that he didn’t seem to be going, ruined any emotional connection the ending could’ve had for me. That disconnect is essentially my biggest problem with the game and it stems from the way Joel’s character was treated. I’m not sure I’m phrasing this all clearly (it took me 9k words to make my points), so there are a few other commenters here I’d recommend reading (Red Metal) who saw the same thing and expressed the same point much better.

      “On to the next point: I think the game is not about whether or not you were entertained or enjoyed, but the emotional reaction you have to it.” With my philosophy for gaming taken into considering and the lack of emotional reaction that I had to it, this essentially sums up why the game didn’t resonate with me. Without any (profound) emotional response to it, it was just watching a bunch of awful people do terrible things to each other. I don’t believe games are meant to be purely enjoyment or entertainment either and I can empathize with the rebuttal that “this is art which makes a statement”, to which my response is what statement is that? That human beings suck? Human beings are selfish? I don’t need a plodding, unashamedly depressing game with a mid-story stunted protagonist to tell me that, especially without any hint of a solution to the bleakness of human nature. In other words, I see the point that art is supposed to make a statement and not just be entertainment, but since I happened to find any kind of statement in the Last of Us to be minimal, jarring, unearned, or of little value, unmoving and generally not impactful or pointed, then there’s not much here for me anyway. The “statement” of the Last of Us is like a placard, a statement said in isolation without any other questions asked of it or anything else explored in it, like why are humans so sucky or what can they do to be less sucky or what can you do after suffering loss to recover (as seen through a character arc, not expositon), so the central statement of the game isn’t packaged in an intriguing way. If there’s another big theme takeaway from this game, I’d like to know it. “From art like this you’re supposed to take away an opinion”, which I get, so there’s that if that was its primary goal. The loss of innocence theme is interesting but again it’s a factoid and that’s all.

      I did like the gameplay, visuals, and music at least. As someone else here also said: I don’t want to take away the enjoyment that other people might’ve had with this game, but this wasn’t for me and I don’t know if I could be one of those gamers that ONLY plays games like this. I can think of quite a few bleak and ultra-violent pieces of art that make their point much clearer and with greater impact. It’s like A Clockwork Orange but more petty and less shocking. It’s like The Men Behind the Sun accept there’s no necessity for its existence based on actual war crimes committed in our history.

      Thanks for not accusing me of subscribing to escapism. I appreciate art in different varieties but I think here that the presentation of this being a video game, taking so much work to get through, and the layer of interactivity just took me out of the experience. Could’ve been a great movie because then at least I wouldn’t be forced to move a character forward that I’d completely lost any sympathy for. What’s your take on Joel’s character? Do you see my perspective on him being pretty much the same as David by the end of the game, after all the teasing that the game does with his heart softening and then him becoming a torturer and murderer right up until the very end just to keep this objectified daughter-figure for himself? That goes way beyond making mistakes or being a hypocrite.

      We see eye to eye on a lot of this and I agree with your points, that the Last of Us is art which doesn’t need to be enjoyable escapism, it’s just that this particular art failed to move me and I wondered exactly why that was the case. You are absolutely right on when you said “You took away a strong opinion, and I think that’s the most important thing.” Given the kind of responses this article is getting, a lot of people have some very strong opinions, and I appreciate that you and I can have this discussion about our opinions just as civilly. Thanks!

      Like

    • I thought of a more nutshell-esque way to phrase my perspective: The Last of Us is art but it doesn’t make a statement which I found compatible with its presentation or which I found moving or profound, so it just exists. It is art but its shock factor is just shocking (disturbing) and nothing else to me.

      Like

    • Wow… you blew my mind that you remembered this. One year ago you said: “Generally, any long cinematic is enough to annoy me. It should only be there for as long as absolutely necessary, and only if there’s no way whatsoever of putting it in game-play. In fact, The Last of Us is basically one long cinematic with occasional moments of interactivity. That’s why the critics love it – because it’s more like a film, which they understand more than games.” Here I am a year later and now I agree with you. You’re a prophet.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Amazing review (congratulations) about one of my favorite games ever. For me the art, characters, story and also the gameplay blended perfectly in an adventure that loved every single minute for 18… And some time later, I played again, two more times, and still was loving it. I’m sure I’ll play it again trying to minimize the wait for the sequel (hopefully, in 2019), By the way, the trailer of Part II is an absolute perfection.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did see the trailer and though I didn’t really have this profound experience with the Last of Us where I really loved it, I did think that trailer for Part II was great. Very much a tease. I would probably play it but given my reaction to this game, I’ll probably wait until the hype dies down again.

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  6. This is one of those games that I wished I had bought a PlayStation 3 for. I went with X-box 360, and to be fair they also had some great games, but this is a game that I wished I could have played back in my gaming days. This post makes me regret that even more, and it is really clear how cool this game was, and still is. Great post! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Bah! I can argue with your philosophy if I want to because I would argue with a brick wall if I felt like it. 🙂

    Joking aside, I agree with a great many points you make here, albeit, it wouldn’t be one of my comments if I brought some contradictory discussion points. So onwards we go.

    I would have cited parts of your review but it is about 27,000 words long so I’m not going to do it.

    Personally, I disliked much of the gameplay. This is a tendency I have with Naughty Dog games from the PS3/PS4 era. The Last of Us really capped out for me though. Not only are the poor gunplay and cover mechanics of the Uncharted series on full display here, the game mostly focuses on the stealth aspect. I’m not a fan of stealth games. This isn’t a failing of the game, it can’t help the fact that I’m not in to that style of play.

    But I do fault the game for putting the player in situations where the mechanic could be used to complete a goal but then force the player to slaughter all the enemies anyway. And in doing so, force me to engage in the less than good third person shooter mechanics that have been a problem with Naughty Dog games for a decade now. This happened more than once to me and infuriated me to no end. That and the repetitious palette swimming sections. Ugh… kill me.

    My other issue with the game was with the narrative and specifically the ending. I’m not necessarily on board with your total assessment of Joel, or maybe I’m reading your assessment wrong, but the final cutscenes are where he falls apart for me. I felt that from the start with Ellie, he didn’t want to get close and then over the course of the year he let her in to his heart and he began to see her as a foster daughter of sorts. I’ve been told this is me projecting on the character but, I think he began to love her. And this is where the projecting came in, but I could justify to myself almost everything Joel does up through even the escape (well maybe not the torture thing but you get the point). I think I’d do any and all those things, including sacrificing my own humanity to protect my kids.

    So side note before I continue. There are two branching paths for me here. The first is the assumption that Ellie (or my kid as I am projecting myself in to Joel’s shoes) does not know their fate, to me anything is acceptable to free her. The second is if she does know her fate, in which case, no action should have been taken.

    I don’t personally believe that Ellie knew her fate, if the game makes it clear that she did and I missed it that is on me but as you’ve mentioned subtlety is not this game’s strong point and much of their narrative beats are blunt hammer strikes. This isn’t to say that if given the chance that Ellie wouldn’t have consented to save the greater good but it wasn’t clear to me and as such, I would have fought through hell to save her as well. Again, that can all be a misunderstanding on my part but to me the ending is where I fall off.

    The lie. I can’t pull myself past the lie. My Joel, and that is where interactive narration takes us – to a place where these characters are no longer just the property of their creators but rather jointly owned with the player, wouldn’t do this. Because, I wouldn’t do this. I wouldn’t lie to my child to protect myself, or at least I don’t think I would. It shatters the character that I had been a part of building. I grew from not caring about this girl and just doing the task, to loving her and wanting to see her thrive. I get that some of that is hypocritical because she could have done great things by saving humanity but I wasn’t sure that her choice was to lose her life in the process. That said, lying to her betrayed the character I had been a part of and ruined any development that was happening, perceived or not. It ruined my relationship with Ellie in a way that wasn’t via my own actions.

    As a movie I think it would work because the story is delivered how the creator wants it. Games are different, there is a symbiotic relationship between player and creator. The best games, even ones of this more cinematic nature, don’t betray the player to placate the creator and I felt betrayed by The Last of Us. Still do in fact, four years after playing it. Thank you for bringing those feelings back to the forefront. I don’t know what I’d do without you to ruin my days on such a consistent basis since I started reading your blog.

    Obviously I’m joking but I do still feel strongly about it. Like I can’t argue with your philosophy on how you approach games, one can’t argue with my feelings on the narrative here. Certainly they can lay their points out, and I’ve heard many of them over the years but I can’t get behind the all out love fest that this game often endures. It is a dour gaming experience, that in itself isn’t bad, but being betrayed on top of that I can’t abide. More power to those that love the game though. I certainly don’t want to take anything away from those that do, it just didn’t work for me.

    And sorry again for the blog sized reply….

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’m putting a word limit on your comments, young man! Just kidding. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. Like I mentioned elsewhere, I do think that discourse is important today, especially if we disagree, and this is a perfect opportunity to practice doing that in a world where people have stopped talking to each other and having actual conversations. I’m glad to know you agree with several points but have your own thoughts on others. We wouldn’t be different people if we thought identically! I’m going to cheer you yet, Oscar!

      I’m finding that people who are familiar with Naughty Dog games from this era are ones who are the most turned off by the gameplay. For me, it may have been a treat since I’ve never played an Uncharted game or any other recent Naughty Dog title beyond this one. It sounds most often like players who disliked gameplay here felt that way out of weariness with similar gameplay elsewhere in these games. My theory on that, at least. And I can empathize with you not preferring stealth gameplay. It’s not something that sells a game to me but I can tolerate it if it’s got a reason for its inclusion.

      “I felt that from the start with Ellie, he didn’t want to get close and then over the course of the year he let her in to his heart and he began to see her as a foster daughter of sorts. I’ve been told this is me projecting on the character but, I think he began to love her. And this is where the projecting came in, but I could justify to myself almost everything Joel does up through even the escape (well maybe not the torture thing but you get the point). I think I’d do any and all those things, including sacrificing my own humanity to protect my kids.” I can see your perspective here. Where I’d differ is that I’d sacrifice my personal humanity to protect my kids but I’d make the distinction that having to torture other human beings isn’t necessary for such a sacrifice. There were so many moments where Joel’s “love” looked more like fanatic obsession, staining even the memory of Ellie and guaranteeing her lifelong hatred if she found out. That to me is at the other end of the spectrum from paternal love. I don’t see that the hypothetical situation of her possibly not finding out makes a difference, but then I define my ethics on the basis not of guilt being established if the victim finds out but on the basis of the act being objectively wrong and doing it making you guilty regardless of if anyone else knows, like the victim, or not. Excuse my layman’s talk. Can’t believe we’re even having this conversation here, and that is at least one aspect more about the Last of Us that I find impressive!

      I don’t think Ellie could know her fate, or at least there’s good reason to believe she didn’t, which made her suspicion of Joel’s tale at the end all the less engaging for that final scene. I do think Marlene (less a villain than Joel) was right when she suggested that Ellie would want to give her life meaning by sacrificing herself for something so significant. I think that’s well within reason of the human experience, especially for teens, but that’s just an assumption or guess I have no research for.

      “The lie. I can’t pull myself past the lie. My Joel, and that is where interactive narration takes us – to a place where these characters are no longer just the property of their creators but rather jointly owned with the player, wouldn’t do this. Because, I wouldn’t do this. I wouldn’t lie to my child to protect myself, or at least I don’t think I would. It shatters the character that I had been a part of building. I grew from not caring about this girl and just doing the task, to loving her and wanting to see her thrive.” We are in PERFECT agreement here. The thing that needs to be said about the ending is that Joel was just covering his butt at that point, and he just wanted Ellie for himself: an object that represented his long lost daughter because it couldn’t be said at that point that he really loved her as an individual, to my mind.

      Maybe they should’ve had a quick time event where you had to tap X to prevent Joel from lying to Ellie? Oh I would’ve been so in the game if they did that!

      100% agree that if this was a movie, it’d be pretty awesome, but it’s like they wanted to make a movie but made a game instead. The attempt is interesting, to put so much cinema into an interactive experience but those two things don’t gel toward the end of the game and the fact that it’s a game itself ruined the cinematic story. It shot itself in the foot with that. I can watch a character on screen do horrible things but that’s different from me actually controlling the character to do those things in a game. I’m glad you and I felt the same way. I just didn’t know how to phrase it and I muddled along 9,000+ words thinking “disturbing” was the answer when what I ought to have said about The Last of Us was I felt betrayed as well. Happy to ruin lives, here, thanks! 😀

      I have a feeling four years from now, if I were to read a review on The Last of Us, that I’d leave a comment very similar to yours for that future author. Plus, bonus, if no one can argue with your feelings on the narrative and I share those same feelings, then that means nobody can argue with my feelings on the narrative here as well! Thanks for indirectly giving me a ton of ammo to defend my take on this game. In all seriousness, I appreciate the sizable comments. They’re easier to take when I agree with them, too, so there’s that. I refuse to say “I loved this game”. Maybe “I appreciated aspects of it” is the furthest I can get at this point?

      Like

    • I agree though it would’ve detracted from the cinematic thrust of the game that it fought for against its own interactivity, evidently the way its creators wanted it. We can’t change the way characters act in cinema like we can’t change Joel here but in cinema we don’t become complicit in characters’ failures.

      And I do believe the sequel contains Joel and Ellie according to the trailer but did I suggest that sequels need the same characters? I’m wracking my brain here.

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    • Yeesh, I don’t know if my friends would let me live if I gave it a 5 or 6. Just kidding. At the lowest, I could imagine it being a high 8 because of narrative problems, but what were the reasons why you’d place it so low on a grading scale? Given, I agree that this is not the greatest game of all time, as well.

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      • Poor gameplay, unmemorable characters, stiff controls, etc. Naughty Dog is one of my least favorite game developers. They try and make their games like movies, but they’re poor movies in my opinion.

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  8. I think by sparing Joel, Naughty Dog inadvertently painted themselves in a creative corner. In the sequel he will either die and it will be unsurprising because that’s the obvious conclusion to his arc or he will survive, which will still be unsurprising given Naughty Dog’s propensity to protect their leads at all cost. They seem to write in a way that assumes the player is 100% on board with the protagonist, which is very grating whenever they’re deeply flawed or the writers overestimate how likable they are.

    Anyway, this game is one I point to whenever asked why I place so much importance on endings; it pays to stick the landing, and this game shows what happens when you don’t. It led me to develop my rule stating that a work with a terrible ending can’t get a passing grade. A bad ending retroactively sours most, if not all, of the goodwill established up until that point. I’m still going to review the sequel, but there’s the knowledge that a lot of the drama is probably going to be the result of how poorly handled the last scenes were.

    Also, I kind of wonder how many people who declared it the Citizen Kane of gaming actually saw that movie.

    In either case, I’m glad you got more out of it than me. Thanks for linking to my review!

    Liked by 2 people

    • You were an inspiration for a lot of this post, so thank you! I know our opinions differed slightly and I definitely thought this was still a great and well-crafted game, despite a ruined ending (imo), in virtually every area except for the narrative thanks to Joel’s incomplete arc and immutability. I’m struggling to come up with an example of a character as deeply cruel as Joel’s that didn’t ultimately have some kind of redemption. Can you think of one? I completely see what you’re saying about them assuming the player is 100% on board with the protagonist because that’s what I felt was happening in the game and my mind consciously resisted it until it left me on the outside of the experience, frowning when it forced me to shoot the surgeon when I didn’t want to.

      Saying “It’s literally the Citizen Kane of video games” sounds a lot to me like picking the most hyperbolic of statements, equivalent to “so-and-so is literally Hitler”. I’ve talked about how hyperbole is practically a disease today in criticism and gaming (see how I used the word “practically” to avoid being guilty of the thing I’m complaining about?). I wonder how much of this you’d agree with me on, while noting that the score-system aspect isn’t the point:

      https://thewellredmage.wordpress.com/2017/03/22/critical-aggrandizement-or-how-being-comfortable-with-10-point-scores-has-atrophied/

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      • No problem. I’m glad I was able to help you write this review!

        That scene with the surgeon is the exact moment I realized the game and its protagonist were irredeemable. 2010s developers don’t seem to understand you can’t judge the player when you only give them one way to proceed. It didn’t work when Spec Ops tried it, and it certainly doesn’t work here. I can’t think of a game with a worse protagonist, to be honest. I’m pretty sure I’ve played games with villain protagonists who were still way more likable than Joel at his best.

        Yeah, another reason I decided to become a critic myself was to provide an alternative to the hyperbole-laden rhetoric that permeates throughout games criticism. With big outlets, either the game is a perfect 10 or it’s garbage. Meanwhile, the independent critic scene seems similar to music journalism at the end of the 20th century where they romanticize the past, dismissing the interesting trends going on right now as “not as good as in my day.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s interesting to me that you phrase it that way, because I felt too that the treatment of Joel the protagonist reflected on the entire game, made all that long and brutal story a waste. Since Joel throws away his arc, he throws away the bond between him and Ellie that everyone adored, and he throws away the whole story. It would’ve been very interesting if they’d given you an option to kill the surgeon or not, but ah that would’ve made it less like a movie then wouldn’t it? And yes, critical reform needs to happen.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. I really enjoyed The Last of Us. I think its as close a cinematic video game experience I’ve had with the game. You get caught up in the stunning graphics, but most importantly, the characters as well, and totally invested in their story and what happens to them. Seems ages since I played it now, but still have fond memories of playing this great game. Really good review you’ve done of it here as well, you raised some extremely valid points.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting! I do appreciate the binding together of the cinematic and the interactive, I really do. It’s just that in this case those two things specifically clashed which showed me a blaring exit sign out of being immersed in the story. Thanks for seeing my points. What’s your take on Joel and his actions? I felt myself beginning to but ultimately I couldn’t get into his character or see his perspective, and I’m actually a father!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m impressed by its quality in so many areas but I found the characterization of Joel disturbing and unfulfilling, which unfortunately made the ending seem like a whimper for me and derailed any immersion that I had in the game for the last several scenes. I’m glad it’s your favorite game of all time. Out of curiosity, how would you describe the story and the ending, specifically? I was under the impression, going in, that it was a tear-jerker. In actuality, I just felt like I might’ve missed something. Thanks for leaving me a comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wow. Where to begin? Ok, well, I did a fairly big post on my blog about my love for the game in great detail, but I’ll try to summarize.
        *Spoilers*
        It the end of the prologue, just before the “The Last of Us” title flashes up, I wasn’t teary eyed, but physically drained. My heart was pounding, and I was stuck somewhere between awe, and a hollow sence of loss. I knew I was playing a game, but the fact that I really felt a connection with Joel, not that I was like him, but I could really feel the weight of the situation. I was drawn into this horrible situation and there was no escape until the end credits rolled.
        I can site several scenes that really drew me into the characters and their story. Ellie and Joel in the Log Cabin, Ellie’s rescue of Joel (that was agonizing), David (I with there was an option to keep stabbing him and burn the body), and of course, the final push to save Ellie in the hospital. It doesn’t matter how many times I play this game (9 currently), no one survives in that operating room.
        I think for me, there was just a connection with these people who felt real. They had suddlties, imperfections, and were vaulnerable. I think this was one of those rare times where they felt human, and not like digital characters used to tell a story. Joel looking at his broken watch whenever Ellie impresses him, Ellie stealing the toy and giving it to Sam to help comfort him, these were the small details of people trying to survive, not just through the violence of the world, but their humanity, and their dependence on those around them.
        The heaviest impact in the whole game, is when Joel lies to Ellie at the end. The look she gives really does say she knows he’s lying, and she is forever changed for knowing.
        BAM. Right in the feels.
        I won’t say I teared up (maybe a little), but I was left emotionally and physically drained after every act without fail.

        Liked by 1 person

        • “Drained”! I wish I’d thought of that. It’s a good way to explain how I felt after the whole game was over, indeed while playing through the game as well. I did feel a connection with Joel and I was “in” his character for most of the game, right up until that end when he throws himself into a dumpster fire of selfishness and ugly objectification of Ellie, destroying the bond he developed with her that we all loved. I fully agree that there are so many great scenes in this game. It’s a game of scenes. I just happened to feel that the ending stampeded and invalidated all of the humanity in those scenes. What did Ellie really mean to Joel in the end? She was at that point an object representing his daughter that he’d stripped of all autonomy with slaughter, torture, and deception. He ended up just like David who threw Ellie in a cage to rape her. That’s not a great character. That’s just dark and disgusting. He wanted Ellie for himself, not in a sexual way, but because of what she represented (just like for David how she represented “female body”). I couldn’t bring myself to kill the surgeon and I tried to turn and walk out, but alas there’s no alternate ending and Joel burned any bridge to “talk it through” with Ellie and the Firefly unit. I certainly didn’t murder the unarmed nurses standing by, since the game only forced me to be complicit in Joel’s selfish insanity by murdering the surgeon to proceed. It was an unearned moment enough for me to almost call it quits on the game. Any connection I had with Joel at that moment, which I’d previously got into, was now gone. That scene with the giraffes? Meant nothing. That time when Ellie nursed him back to health? Meant nothing. That scene where he holds her after she was almost sexually assaulted? Meant nothing, all that mattered in the end for Joel was that he did everything to keep his object, not his autonomous human. And that’s immensely repulsive to me. I don’t think this game had a good ending, but it did have a somewhat surprising and shocking one, which apparently makes the statement that human beings can be really selfish and suck a lot. If that’s all this game decides to hang itself on, then I’m glad I played it for its obvious high quality presentation but I can’t say I loved or enjoyed the story at all. The ending did nothing for my “feels”. It just made me think Joel was an A-hole. There’s the “statement from the art”! That’s the conclusion for this whole game about developing a bond! That’s what “fatherhood” in the Last of Us means! Roll credits! Nah…

          It was draining, so that’s the point where you and I will have to meet and shake hands. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • The true beauty of this story is that they didn’t walk us through it. They left it open to our own interpretation. Naughty Dog gave is credit to find our own depth in the tale and that’s the biggest part of The Last of Us for me.
            We both saw the same ending and walked away emotional in very different ways. That’s only ever happened to me with a great book or movie before.
            Thanks for the friendly banter.

            Liked by 1 person

            • The pleasure is all mine, thank you! Phrasing it in this way and allowing for the capacity of a game to be interpreted in different ways, as well as accepting that others have different opinions… that’s a hill that I’ll gladly die on beside you.

              Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve not played it, unfortunately, but I saw the incredible reviews and paid particular attention to how the story is supposed to be “amazing”, but I was hoping for a genuinely critical assessment of it. This has helped – thanks! I think one of the problems for many devs is they don’t read novels, so they don’t understand how to tell an excellent story, which is why so many video games are 50 years behind novels and films.

    I had to abandon Bayonetta 2, Mass Effect 2, several CoDs, and multiple other modern AAA games simply as the story was badly told, the voice acting atrocious, and the endless cutscenes an irritation. I’m really not in favour of this movie-esque route modern games have taken, but if they’re going to do it, Half-Life 2 and the Last of Us seem to be the place to turn for inspiration. I’m very eager to play this game, though, so I’ll be picking up a cheapo PS4 later this year to get my hands on it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Here we go again! Just joking.

      I think one of the problems for many devs is they don’t read novels, so they don’t understand how to tell an excellent story, which is why so many video games are 50 years behind novels and films.”

      I do think that you might be a bit presumptuous to say that many devs don’t read novels but maybe I am being presumptuous in defending their honor. That said, I do think that games deliver a very different set of problems than their passive media counterparts, the biggest of which is that games are not passive. Devs are struggling with finding the solution to those problems, although in some cases are getting better at it. Games like Journey and, Inside tell stories with zero dialog. Games like Firewatch and Gone Home deliver solid experiences where you discover the story by exploring the environment. And Until Dawn was a well acted, well delivered interactive adventure that really hit the cinematic effect it was going for (that of a B grade horror film). Film took a long time to grow in to the storytelling medium it has become, I really think we are getting there with games but it is going to take time. I’m glad I’m along for the ride.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Get me off the train! Kidding. I’m delightedly surprised to see how some developers get around the interactivity, though on occasion it seems like this causes the game to stumble and trip up over whether it wants to be a film or interactive. Anyway, Journey is a great example that is certainly cinematic but my reaction to it was quieter and more reflective, almost as if it had bridged the gap between game and fine art, like a painting. I had a very near religious experience with that game that I wasn’t expecting at all, so that’s another layer of its reach that’s really impressive to me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I had just about the opposite reaction to your comments: I didn’t love this game but it could be said that I appreciated its quality. It wasn’t heart wrenching to me at all and while I did enjoy the gameplay, I didn’t like how the stealth felt obsolete through a lot of it when it forces you to fight your way through quite often. And I definitely saw very little actual beauty in it (beyond visually). It’s a very ugly world with ugly characters, relentlessly so. But hey, I can agree with you that it is super cheap! I appreciate that many people had a profound reaction to the Last of Us. Unfortunately I can’t count myself among their prestigious ranks. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

    • I tried my best to be critical about it. It’s still, in my opinion, a well-crafted game even though I found it to be more repulsive than emotional. Yeah, there’s something about gaming storytelling which doesn’t seem on par with cinema and literature, the latter especially. Given, these are different modes with entirely different sensibilities, but I think that devs should begin to use the interactivity of games to propel their stories rather than painting themselves into a corner where interactivity interrupts immersion. That’s what happened to me with the Last of Us when it forced me to do things I didn’t want to do because of its characterization s. There are other reasons I don’t care for AAA games anyway, and I’m glad I played this one, but I’m not in a rush to play modern AAA’s because of it. I’d be interested in hearing your take on The Last of Us once you pick it up. It isn’t a long play but it can take some time to process. I appreciate your thoughtful comment, Cheesy, and thanks for enduring my longwindedness!

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      • He’s the creator behind Quantic Dream, the studio of Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls, and the upcoming Detroit. He has a love for film and his games are styled like choose your own adventure films. Since you hate quick time events, I can’t see you enjoying the games he directs as they are super quick time heavy. Also the storytelling is super clunky, albeit with a lot of charm.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m sure he’s quite talented but I haven’t played any of those games and from what I’ve seen of Detroit from the past two E3’s it’s something I’m not very interested in. Different strokes and all that, most likely. QTE’s bother me a ton, as you now know, maybe as much as Metroidvania bothers you, so I don’t know that I could get into them. I’d rather just watch a movie than a movie with button mashing commands. What would you say is the source of the charm, then?

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