The Last of Us: Superheroes Dealing Death
Phil Owen touches upon the disconnect between violence and narrative in The Last of Us.
Dealing death is the way of the world in major video games. That's the stage of evolution we are experiencing now. We are playing more complex versions of Galaga with stories and characters strapped onto them. I assume we will someday move past this phase, but a game like The Last of Us, with all the praise it's garnered, makes me wonder how long I'm going to be waiting for that.
As folks are quick to point out The Last of Us is different from other games. It has actual, well-sketched-out characters, for one. It's true that Joel and Ellie set this experience apart from other recent AAA games with story modes, but Naughty Dog's insistence on making The Last of Us a "video game" kinda ruins all the writing they did.
There's a major disconnect within The Last of Us that I don't think most folks are acknowledging. When we discuss the tale being told within the game, we talk about Joel's brutality. He beat that one guy's head in with a pipe in a cutscene! Oh man. That's so shocking.
Or it would be shocking if Joel didn't also brutally beat the living shit out of hundreds of other men over the course of the game. I, in control of Joel, shot many dudes. Some times I punched them out. Other times I slammed their heads against the wall, and occasionally I smashed their skulls with my boot. Ellie, who was by my side for most of this, would often ooh and ah at the violence or let out a "Jeez, Joel."
But what does it really mean that Joel shot the leader of a certain gang in the head in a cutscene? Is that really a meaningful moment after he stormed through the base killing everybody else working under that boss?
The Last of Us is attempting to assign meaning to death. It's set in a dystopia that resulted from the decimation of society after a zombie plagued killed lots of people, and it's a world where individual human lives don't mean a whole lot.
In that world we are presented with Real People as our protagonists. Real People with Real Personalities and Real Weaknesses. When Joel gets shot, he falls down, for example, a half measure toward realism that I think works decently. And when Joel gets something stabbed through his side, he doesn't scream for a minute and then hop up and go about his business; this dude falls into a coma. He's a Real Person, after all. That a single administration of penicillin completely fixes him, though, belies the truth about the story in The Last of Us; it's actually about superheroes.
Joel and Ellie's first stop after leaving Boston is Pittsburgh, and while there Joel will completely wipe out the very large gang of thugs who run that city. To be fair, it's not totally his fault, as they seem to be hunting him and Ellie. But by the time he leaves Pittsburgh everybody is dead by his hand. This is a 50+ year old dude who takes down large groups of younger men via a mix of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat. You could say that Joel is an experienced survivor, having lasted this long by his own wits, but so are these enemies.
Ellie, on the other hand, uses a firearm for the first time in her whole life about halfway through the game, and later on she singlehandedly clears out a large camp of cannibal dudes.
Eventually, you will overhear soldiers talking about the legendary old dude and teenaged girl who have been wiping the floor with their friends, and yet they keep on coming. It's Joel and Ellie vs. Mankind in a fight to the death, as it is in every other game, and Joel and Ellie win, as per usual.
The Last of Us is the story of a man and a girl struggling to make their way across a hostile United States. Except they aren't really struggling, because Joel is actually Sam Fischer, except he's actually better than Sam Fischer because he doesn't have the advantage of using a silenced pistol, and he never bothers to hide bodies.
And therein lies the disconnect. Joel and Ellie are supposed to be Real People who struggle with Real People issues and limitations and emotions. But, no, they are more than capable of facing off directly with one large group of men after another who are far better armed than they are. They kill so many non-infected people that death is rendered meaningless in this world. We want to pretend that a death in a cutscene is far more meaningful than a hundred deaths caused by the player directly in the course of gameplay, but it really isn't.
In the end, The Last of Us isn't about the struggles of Real People trying to survive in a dystopia. It is just another video game power fantasy, and that, ultimately, robs it of the intellectual weight it is trying to hard to grasp on to.