After having finished The Last of Us, a game by studio Naughty Dog, I decided this game was more than just a game. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this game is both the best movie I’ve ever played, and best episode of The Walking Dead since The Walking Dead: The Game (which was Game of the Year in most circles in 2012). Be warned… SPOILERS are coming… Seriously. This article will be rife with them. Still here? Good.
The last game to really break my emotional barrier was the aforementioned The Walking Dead: The Game. Don’t worry… it’s going to come up a lot. I will also warn you that there may/will be SPOILERS for that game as well. The Last of Us has an immersive story. It’s riveting. It’s bold. It isn’t afraid to hit you where it hurts emotionally. Sometimes it can’t help but be what it naturally is (a video game) and even when it gets in its own way, it is still as close to perfection as you can get with today’s video game technology. The Uncanny Valley, the bane of all computer generated characters, is still evident in this game, but hardly shows itself due to the extensive work Naughty Dog put into capturing the performances and facial expressions of actors Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, and company.
Honestly, that is where the game really shines – with its characters. Joel and Ellie take you on such a wild and dangerous journey that during my time with the game I was genuinely worried about them. Seriously. If you don’t believe me go watch our Let’s Play series. Every moment of pain and suffering they felt resonated with me. Whether it was Joel losing Sarah (his daughter), or being terrified the first time the marauders attack and almost kill/rape Ellie (it was hard to tell which was about to occur). I was worried every time Ellie was in danger. Knowing she was immune to the cordecyps parasite didn’t really make things easier. When I was dangling by a chain upside down and Ellie was left defenseless I fought hard not to die, not because I didn’t want to lose, but because I feared for her well-being. Walking Dead’s Lee and Clementine had a similar effect on me. That little girl felt like a child of my own. She felt like a real person that you would want to protect. That’s impressive for a cell shaded character. Even though Lee was what you made of him instead of a more fully fleshed out character like Joel, I still felt connected to him and when he becomes infected towards the end it broke my heart. The first thoughts I had were “What do we do about Clem?”
How many games can say they have that level of emotional resonance with its audience? Call of Duty? Please. Final Fantasy XIII? Maybe if you’re trying hard to that connected. Halo? Doubtful. Gears of War? Close, but not even deserving of a cigar. Quantic’s Heavy Rain is the closest I’ve ever been to the same level of connection with a video game character like in The Last of Us or The Walking Dead. Despite this, even Heavy Rain stuck the landing in the end. The reason this was the case was because of the supporting cast. Or in Heavy Rain’s case a lack there of.
The supporting cast of The Last of Us gives us several things we haven’t gotten from the video game industry in its long and storied history. It gave us a pair of black characters that weren’t “gangstas”, “thugs”, or worse yet “generic stereotypes“. I think a lot of this is due to the fact that the people in the industry only inject into their video games what they know. If they only know the “stereotype” that is what you get. I appreciate Naughty Dog coming in and giving us not one, not two, but three black characters who didn’t speak jive or act like rappers or pimps. Of course there are a couple of other black characters who show up in the game early on that seem like stereotypes, but they aren’t main characters or supporting characters. They’re just background cannon fodder at best. Henry & Sam are fully fleshed out people with personality and range of emotion. Even though they’re only with us for a short while before we lose them to tragedy, they’re importance weighs on the player just as it does with Joel and even more so with Ellie. The moment we learn Sam is infected my heart sank. What made it worse is Ellie discovering him as he’s just turned and seeing how Sam almost seemed to be aware he was attacking Ellie, but was unable to control himself. It made me think back to the conversation He had with her about whether or not “you are still you when infected”. It broke my heart more when Henry knew he had to kill Sam and took his own life in turn because he knew he couldn’t live with himself for it. I had to put the controller down for a day or so…
Another good example is Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies. Marlene could’ve easily been cast a sassy, ghetto, stereotypical angry black woman. But she wasn’t. She’s strong, conflicted, desperate, and resolute all at once. In the few scenes we get with her and the notes we find, we learn she has lost so much. Her leadership has been questioned. Ellie is the closest thing to family she has left. What’s worse is towards the end she has a choice to make… Ellie or the human race. She chooses the human race. Not because she doesn’t love Ellie, but because she knows its right. She wants nothing more than for Ellie to live a long life free of the burdens the infected world presents. She made a promise to her parents she would keep her safe, and the last thing she wants is to break it, but she knows what’s at stake and makes an ugly choice for the greater good. Did I agree with her choice? Hell no! But I understood it.
The other thing that really stood out was a character by the name of Bill. Bill was a ornery, cantankerous, insufferable son of bitch. And yet he is one of the more human characters in the game. When you meet him he is paranoid. He’s laid booby traps all over his settlement for survivors and infected alike. He’s suspicious of Ellie. He seems to have a strong distaste for Tess. He also seems to have a love/hate relationship with Joel. He’s hands down the most alienating character, but at the same time he is so relatable. The best part about Bill is the reveal towards the end of your time together. While I we were sneaking through a neighborhood crawling with Clickers and Runners we stumbled upon a house where another character lived that Bill knew. It wasn’t until then that we found out that Bill may just be gay. He became distant. Cold. Combative even when the idea of recognizing someone he was close to had killed himself. Even more revealing was the suicide letter you find by his body that implies even further that they once had something of a relationship. If you can’t read between the lines even Ellie brings it to the player’s attention when she shows Joel the porno magazine she stole from Bill’s home that is all pictures of men having sex with men. Is there anything wrong with this? No! This is great! Bill wasn’t a stereotype. Naughty Dog didn’t draw attention to the fact he was gay. They treated it like it should be treated in real life. Like it is normal and nothing to make a big deal about. The last game I saw do this was Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 and I really hope this becomes the norm for the video game industry. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people are a part of our world. And we should treat them that way.
Next on my list of “unusual suspects” is Tess. I saved Tess for last because, honestly, Joss Whedon said it best when was asked –
“Why do you write strong female characters?”
He simply replied…
“Because you’re still asking me that question.”
That’s powerful and a shame at the same time. He was merely talking about TV and movies. We’re talking about video games where women are over sexualized just as bad, if not worse. Tess is the ultimate counterbalance. She’s attractive without being half-naked. She can be vulnerable without needing to be saved. She can survive in a “Man’s World”. She doesn’t wait for Joel to save her. She saves herself. She’s brash. She’s tough. She’s not worried about letting her breast hang out to keep the male audience’s attention. Naughty Dog did something I didn’t think was possible in this male dominated industry. They made a female character who was strong, non sexualized, conventionally attractive, who was not a damsel in distress wearing skimpy clothes… And it worked. Tess is easily my favorite character of the game. I was heartbroken when she revealed she was bitten. I was devastated. I felt like someone had taken my soul and ripped it apart. I didn’t want to leave her. I didn’t want Ellie to watch her die. And it didn’t stop there. Her heroic sacrifice for the greater good kind of feels rushed, but for a good reason. We were shown that in their future there is no time to mourn. And that made the game feel more bleak and achieve its goal more than anything else.
One of the things they really needed to pull off with this game was to make certain Joel was a likeable character. They pulled it off strikingly. In the beginning when Sarah is shot and he holds her in his hands, bleeding himself, and crying her name we knew where this was going. We knew he would either gravitate to Ellie… or push her away. Troy Baker’s performance coupled with Ashley Johnson’s and Naughty Dog’s writing made it possible to believe. I knew Joel would eventually come to see her as his “daughter”. It was only a matter of time. But they way everything flowed together between the acting and writing made me forget that I knew the outcome long before the game began. And it resonated even further in the closing moments when Joel had fought and scrape with everything he had to save her from the Fireflies. The choices he had to make, the consequences he had to live with made me forget how selfish and reprehensible his actions were. Even learning during the first hunter attack that he was once a hunter himself and has killed innocents to “survive”. I was still understanding of him. From killing what could’ve been the last surgeon capable of extracting the cure from Ellie’s brain to killing Marlene as she begged for her life. I still felt sympathy for him. Even after he lied to one person left in the world that he truly loved. Whether it was for his own selfish need, or because he really wanted to spare her the pain of knowing – he did something wrong, and I felt for him so much that I understood. Joel is not a good man. He is not a great man. He is more than flawed. And he could easily be any one of us if put in that same situation…
Ellie… Ellie is probably hands down the most important character in video game history. She made you love her. She made you want to do anything to protect her. And I am willing to bet many of you who have played this game worried more for her than your own playable characters safety at times. She was a babe in the woods who never knew the world before the infection. All she knew was infection. We watched her as she saw fireflies for the first time. As she taught herself how to whistle. We were with her as she discovered her first comic book. We even taught her how to shoot a gun and protect herself. Not unlike what we experienced in The Walking Dead: The Game with Clementine. These were characters who drove us to finish the game because we didn’t want to see it end, and we didn’t want to lose them. We wanted to know that in the end at they were going to be “OK”. Did Ellie know in the ending frames that Joel lied to her? Maybe. Maybe not. I felt she had a gut feeling she did. And most people are so up in arms about Joel and his lie. Remember Ellie is pretty good at sniffing out lies. We learn this much when Joel tries to give her over to Tommy in the 2nd Act of the game. She easily called his bluff, but when she confronted him in the end she never asked for “the truth” because she obviously most have known it. She only asked that he “promise” everything he said about the Fireflies is true. The more important question people should be asking is not “How could Joel lie to her?”… They should be asking “Does Ellie even really care?”…
And that is why Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is a first for many of us.