The Last of Us: how to make fictional characters come to life

better last of us

One of the vows I made this summer was to start playing video games again. Video games are an art form not many people are able to recognize as such, and the fact I was even marginally taking part in that viewpoint by not playing them really bothered me. They provide an opportunity to tell immense immersive narratives with some of the worlds greatest minds behind them. Yet, many simply write it off as nothing but violence and nonsensical power fantasies. On the surface perhaps that’s what many games may seem like, but to the people who are actually experiencing them, they’re much more than that.

It’s true that numerous video games are a type of escapism for particular individuals however, I believe they can also ground us back in the space we inhabit, maybe even with a greater appreciation than we had before. They provide unforgettable experiences the player could have never even dreamed of. I’m aware this sentiment doesn’t hold true for all titles, but the one we’re talking about today could not be more fitting of my previous declarations.

When I asked my friend Noah to let me borrow his copy of The Last of Us I wasn’t aware that by the end of it I would be ashamed I didn’t spend a cent on it. The game warrants the utmost praise and acclaim for masterfully blending a heart-wrenching story with creative survival style gameplay. I’m going to attempt to analyze as much of the narrative and overall style of the game itself as I can in this article without ruining the integrity of it. I would love it if everyone were to experience this game in its entirety on their own. However, there will be some spoilers in this appraisal. So if you don’t want it ruined for you. I suggest you turn back now.

I’ll never forget the title screen for The Last of Us. It’s just a simple window with some foliage peeking out with and a mere, “Press Any Button To Start” message at the bottom, but for some reason, it holds so much thematic purpose. The area around the shutter is very damaged due to the overgrowth, but at the same time, it’s so gorgeous. It’s almost as if it’s trying to say that despite the dire straights the world is currently in, life continues to flourish and go on as if nothing happened. There’s a level of poignancy there that shouldn’t be lost on the player once they begin their journey as it’s carried throughout the duration of the game. It’s also incredibly tranquil which is a stark contrast to what directly follows.

The very first scene between the main character; Joel and his daughter Sarah, portrayed by Troy Baker and Hana Hayes respectively, sets up The Last of Us and Joel’s character perfectly. You see one of the few times where he is truly happy and then you get to see how that side of him was broken. Not just because of the death of his daughter but also due to the broader implication of the outbreak itself.

I’ve always found the use of a virus as a plot device to be hackneyed and contrived, very rarely is it ever done with a level of elegance that warrants recognition. However, this is something that The Last of Us is able to brilliantly subvert. The outbreak is reduced to a backdrop to allow the blooming relationship between Joel and his eventual sidekick Ellie to come into the spotlight. The focal point isn’t the infection; it’s the characters. In its purest essence, The Last of Us is quite literally about the last of us. The hardships one must undergo to survive in a cruel world, and how pure love can still blossom from it.

There’s twenty-year gap following the prologue where the player can observe how far the world has fallen. The camera quietly focuses on Joel as he sharply rises out of his bed in his dimly lit room. Given his stunned reaction, it’s reasonable to assume the prologue cutscenes are what he was dreaming about. However, what’s clear just by looking at him is that a lot has changed after the twenty-year lull. The shift in his demeanor and the tone in his voice implies he’s being haunted by his past. This will be the first of the many scenes where the player watches him awake from desperate slumber. The creative director and writer of The Last of Us; Neil Druckman later added in a commentary released for the game:

It’s another one of those moments…. where its like; it just feels like Joel is just always exhausted. Like this world is just bearing down on him.

The world itself has been utterly destroyed by the outbreak and now society has opted for a community-driven democracy with military-controlled quarantine zones. For once in a post-apocalyptic setting the antagonist is not a tyrannical ruler or society itself. In fact, The Last of Us does not have a set antagonist leaving a lot of room for moral ambiguity in Joel’s often heinous actions. There’s even room to question Joel whether he’s even the protagonist at all. This gives the player the option to decide on their own how they feel about the various characters present.

The topic of ethics is made more complex by the introduction of Ellie; the secondary protagonist and foil to Joel. When she’s first revealed to Joel and his partner at the time; Tess their relationship is non-existent, in fact, he barely acknowledges her in their first meeting. When he’s asked to smuggle her, both he and Ellie both put up a fight and Tess retorts by saying she’s “just cargo.” It’s an amazing and simultaneously unusual starting point that their unbreakable bond will eventually build upon over the course of the game and it’s not very long before the two are able to connect.

The first time Ellie opens up to Joel occurs as they make their way towards the capital building where the fireflies are supposedly located. They reach as roof where Ellie then remarks at the view of the horizon. Joel is sure to take note of her childish wonder and crosses his arms looking down at his watch. The watch is of particular importance because it was what his late daughter got him for his birthday, before the outbreak. The watch serves as his single connection to home and humanity despite the fact it’s broken, which Ellie also makes casual note of. When he looked down at his watch after Ellie admired the view it was because that moment reminded him of Sarah, and by extent; home.

This is one of several pivotal moments throughout The Last of Us where Joel’s tried and trusted methods of surviving are questioned. The player has no idea how long he’s probably closed himself off from that old side of himself, but all of a sudden when Ellie comes into the picture it’s as if it never left. Even after the death of Tess, his longtime partner, Ellie is still there to serve as the single link between them. Even if he isn’t very receptive to it. Druckman later explained why Joel reacted to Tess’ death the way he did once again in the commentary:

Joel knows what he needs to do to survive which is let go. He needs to let go fast of these things or it will kill you.

Up until Ellie’s arrival, Joel was able to keep this routine up successfully for at least twenty years. He had even become estranged from his younger brother, Tommy, during that time but once more Ellie is able to inadvertently bring them back together during the Fall chapter. Joel and Ellie actually meet up with a lot of new and old faces through their dangerous venture. Two people, in particular, Henry and his kid brother Sam mirror our main duo in dignity.

To put it bluntly, both Henry and Sam end up meeting a horrible fate by the end of the Summer chapter. Which causes a multitude of internal struggles within Joel. As he begins to wonder if he and Ellie will share the same fate. This is why he attempts to leave Ellie with Tommy and also why he inevitably fails to.

Joel realizes Ellie is his second chance at living again. Ellie symbolizes everything he wanted that was taken away from him at the beginning of the game and after all this time he finally has a reason for surviving other than just doing it for the sake of doing it. Druckman later said:

It’s kinda this theme, like this idea of; I’ve done all these crappy things but it’s all okay if I can do this one thing right.

There are two scenarios where Joel’s connection with Ellie is put in jeopardy. The first of which is when Ellie is captured by cannibals and the second is at the end of the game. Both of which are defining moments for our two budding companions.

When Ellie is held captive, Joel rushes to go find her turning back to his older roots to do so. He tortures two men and brutally murders both of them just to get simple information. Here the player is able to empathize with both sides of him. The player has had time to connect with Ellie at the same rate as Joel making their sentiments identical. When he eventually finds Ellie they share their first true tender moment together in a sweet embrace and the player is able to partake in that experience with them.

Game designers typically want their players to share the emotions and thoughts of the protagonist they control and the developers at Naughty Dog are able to capture this perfectly. You play as Ellie when she escapes and murders her captors to participate in the anger she feels toward them, but you play as Joel when you end up finding her to share the distress in possibly losing her. Point of view continues to play a major role chiefly in the final moments of The Last of Us.

The conclusive chapter; Spring marks the inception of Joel’s new relationship with Ellie. We’re once again treated to some playful dialogue between the two as Joel promises to teach her how to swim and play guitar. He is once again able to relish Ellie’s innocence as they gaze at a passing tower of Giraffes. It’s in this chapter where he seems to be the most content just spending time with her. However, their good times don’t last for very long as they both find themselves in another bind that ends up landing them in a hospital controlled by the fireflies. However, what happens here changes everything.

Ellie’s original caretaker; Marlene explains to Joel that in order to extract the cure from Ellie they essentially must kill her. This obviously doesn’t sit well with him and the player is then treated to one of the most crushing moments in gaming history as he singlehandedly fights through the hospital, killing off the fireflies, and preventing the cure for the outbreak from being made. Prior to this event, it was unknown how far Joel’s attachment to Ellie stretched but in this single moment, the player is able to witness just how far he will go to stay with Ellie. He sacrifices humanity itself in order to desperately hold on to someone to fight for. The entire reason why you were with Ellie in the first place is reduced to nothing in a mere chapter. It then cuts to an epilogue where you appropriately play as Ellie.

As Ellie, you question Joel’s actions at the hospital asking if what he said about what transpired was true. Joel, in order to save himself, looks her in the eyes and lies to her. Ellie’s final, “okay” in response to Joel’s farce can be taken a number of different ways with different implication and is said by Naughty Dog to be up to interpretation. It’s a true testament to the overall effect this title has had on the industry as a whole. Seeing the way Joel and by extent, I was able to connect with Ellie over the course of the game and then at the end watching it culminate into this beautiful lie is one of the greatest gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

To me, The Last of Us is the benchmark all other video game developers should aspire to reach in terms of writing. There are so many nuances, so many subtle touches within its characters that make it such a gratifying adventure. I can only think of a few games that are able to match and even fewer games that have surpassed its level of prowess.  It’s mindboggling to think it came out five years ago back in the Summer of 2013.

I desperately await the release of The Last of Us Part II in hopes it will capture even a modicum of the vitality present in its predecessor. My only wish is that this is not the last we get to see of Joel and Ellie’s relationship.

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