The Last of Us and Rugged Individualism

March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

I just finished playing The Last of Us. I have a lot of shit to talk on a game I couldn’t stop thinking about or playing. All of the spoilers follow.

First, it’s important to note that the game is a post-apocalypse story, more than a zombie story. By that, I mean the fully realized TEOTWAWKI world is the chief spectacle. There are no moaning hordes of undead, and the zombie movie cliches are kept to a minimum. Instead, we have absolutely stunning vistas of overgrown and rewilded freeways, city centers, and suburbs. At the center, we have Joel and his surrogate daughter Ellie, a complex and tangled relationship that acts as a stand-in for whatever hope might exist for fixing that broken world.

Second, The Last of Us is a conspicuously American post-apocalypse story. Your Player Character for most of the game is a drawling Texan former country musician. As far as I can remember, the state of the rest of the world outside the USA is never discussed within the game. And your progression through the game takes you, mostly by foot, on a Manifest Destinied path from the jackboot-ruled Boston Quarantine Zone to the lawless expanses of Utah and Wyoming, vast and empty paradises sparsely populated by violent savages, and zombies. Hm. (Also, I just did a Google search and found out that the companion graphic novel is subtitled “American Dream”.)

More to the point, The Last of Us is a game in which rugged individualism runs amok. I suppose you could say that about any story in which one guy kills dozens upon dozens of other guys, but it seems doubly so in this one. Throughout the entire game, you come across hundreds of non-infected humans, but only 4 who aren’t trying to you shoot you. You systematically murder all the rest. These people, all men, are apparently sociable enough to each other that they can form small packs of pirates, looters, cannibals, even a revolutionary paramilitary organization. But every single person, as soon as they see you, starts trying to kill you. Well, one doesn’t want to kill you immediately—he wants to rape Ellie first. Basically (with two exceptions) the game argues that, in the absence of our current civilization, people can only organize themselves to do evil. It’s like a Libertarian prepper convention gone horribly sour. The game eventually points out the repercussions of your murder spree on the personal relationships of those you killed—somebody says, “you killed all my friends!” But that guy turns out to be a cannibal, so who cares.

The rugged individualism is subverted somewhat in the developing relationship between Joel and Ellie, but only somewhat. The major arc of their relationship involves Joel coming to care for Ellie despite the fact that she is not his dead daugher, who gets refrigeratored in the prologue. To do this he must overcome his horrendous insistence on being a total jerkface—never acknowledging his past, never talking about anything ever, etc. He finally gets over this, but only as soon as Ellie proves she can be a rugged individual herself by shooting some dudes. After that, Joel finally acquiesces to let her carry a gun of her own, and their relationship begins to develop.

Ellie eventually acquits herself as a worthy partner to Joel, saving him and taking care of him through a brutal winter when he gets critically wounded. She doesn’t even need him to save her from the evil cannibalrapist, which was a nice touch. But she does need him to be a parent after that experience, which was also well executed. Thankfully, he steps up to the task. Just when it seems like their adventure together is finished and their mutual respect is complete, though, the ending introduces some true emotional turmoil to the story.

For the whole game, Joel and Ellie’s goal has been to get to a science research station run by the aforementioned revolutionary organization, the Fireflies. Once there, Ellie, the first known human immune to the zombie fungus, can be studied to develop a cure. Except, plot twist! In order to do so, the Fireflies have to perform a fatal biopsy Ellie. Somewhat inexplicably, a killing Ellie is the first solution they think to try (what if it doesn’t work?), but whatevs. If killing things works every time for Joel, it ought to work for everyone else too. So Joel kills all the Fireflies and their leader to save Ellie, unconscious on the surgery table, and takes her back to his brother’s utopian settlement in Wyoming. Ellie probably would not have consented to this—but then again, she’s not of age to give informed consent by pre-apocalyptic standards. Finally, Joel lies to her to keep her from knowing what really happened.

The game ends with this as an open question: was Joel right? Saving Ellie means sacrificing the relationship of mutual respect they have built and acting once again as her protector, first and foremost—was that the right choice? More obviously, it means potentially sacrificing the future of the human race to live a normal life with his new daughter. This dilemma is also left open, though the rest of the game gives the sense that, despite the constant horrors of the post-apocalyptic world it portrays, humanity fucking blows anyway, so who gives a fuck.

The game leaves these questions open in part because it has no mechanism for letting you answer them for yourself, which is unfortunate. That said, there does seem to be a slight bias in how it portrays these questions, in the form of the privilege it lends to the POV of whichever character is the Player Character. Interestingly, when Joel kills the Fireflies and rescues Ellie, he’s the Player Character, including a Bioshock-esque illusion-of-choice to murder the surgeon about to cut Ellie open. However, when Joel tells this final lie to Ellie, she is the Player Character. To me, this would suggest that the game respects her agency more than Joel does. According to The Last of Us, the world is not worth Ellie’s sacrifice, but her right as an individual to choose to sacrifice herself anyway is more important. God bless America.

Unrelated: as fun as it was, this game could have been a quarter as long and just as good. The whole game really only follows a single gameplay loop: hide, kill, search for supplies. Push the button, open the door, repeat. Unfortunately, you can’t spend that much money to develop a game this pretty and sell it for less than $60, and you can’t sell a game for $60 unless it’s at least 15 hrs long. I wonder if developers would ever add a short mode and a long mode to games, like some games have an easy mode and a hard mode. Then again, I’d probably play the long mode on every game anyway, because I’d be afraid I’d miss something.

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