Do You Feel Like A Hero Yet? - The Last of Us and Violence in Context
Warning: this post is going to contain spoilers for both games in the Last of Us franchise, as well as discussions of some terrible acts of violence. I'm not going to use screenshots of any of these events, but if you don't want the games spoiled or don't want to read descriptions of graphic violence, I recommend you don't read on.
This month marks the one year anniversary of The Last of Us Part 2. The launch was, to put it mildly, messy. The game was beset by delays, was being hyped up to absurd degrees by rabid fans and then suffered some really brutal leaks. These leaks revealed many crucial and controversial details of the narrative of the game and made it pretty much impossible to have even a slightly nuanced conversation about what the story was doing. Out of context, these narrative beats infuriated fans, but a year on I want to look at them in context. Both of the full length The Last of Us games (I am ignoring the DLC game Left Behind as it isn't entirely relevant to the themes we're discussing here) are about the lengths to which people will go to get what they want, so I want to examine these lengths, to see whether characters or players could honestly answer yes to the question "Do you feel like a hero yet?" without lying to themselves. Across both games, how do characters in these narratives attempt or fail to justify their frequently violent actions? More importantly, outside of the narrative how does that justification change, both in considering the gameplay and in considering the exploitative working conditions of developer Naughty Dog? There is no conclusive answer to either question, but I want to share my responses, which can hopefully help you consider your response to the same questions.
We're starting with The Last of Us, which released in 2013 at the end of the PlayStation 3 lifecycle. It was touted as the game to really send off that console and it's widely agreed that it certainly hit that target. Much of the acclaim was focused on the maturity of the storytelling, which is one of the elements of the game that holds up better than things like the graphics or the character movements. After all, it felt like a step-up and a moment for the medium that Naughty Dog, the studio who had previously made Crash Bandicoot and Uncharted, were now tackling a very mature story about loss and anger. There's some ways in which the gameplay is still reminiscent of those early Naughty Dog games, but the story feels distinct.
It's the story of a man named Joel. When an outbreak hits that turns humans into zombie-like creatures, he loses his young daughter and has to spend the next twenty years attempting to cope with that loss as he fights his way through the new world. As part of this new world, he is asked to help a rebel group known as The Fireflies. They will give him the guns they owe him for a previous job, if he escorts a young girl named Ellie to their base. Ellie's age is similar to the age of Joel's daughter when she died, which obviously complicates their relationship, as does the revelation that Ellie is immune to this disease. If Joel can get her to The Fireflies, they can use her DNA to create a vaccine for the disease, a miracle after twenty years. On a personal and political level, Ellie's life means a lot.
Joel makes the choice to take Ellie back, whatever it takes. And what it takes is violence.
The journey to The Fireflies is not easy for the two of them. Joel's partner is bitten and dies, Ellie is almost eaten by cannibals and after entering the campus that houses what they believe to be the hospital Ellie is to be escorted to (I wrote about how much I love this campus here if you want a read of that), Joel suffers an almost fatal abdomen wound. Yet, they make it, having grown closer together while fighting for their life against humans and the infected. And on making it to the hospital, Joel is dealt the cruellest blow yet; the only way to use Ellie's cells to create a vaccine is by killing her. It would save the lives of millions, but mean that Joel has to say goodbye to a girl he has come to love, as both a surrogate for his dead daughter and on her own merits. Faced with the possibility of losing a daughter for the second time, Joel makes the choice to take Ellie back, whatever it takes. And what it takes is violence.
In essence, Joel is faced with a version of the trolley problem. I'm sure you're familiar with it, it's a thought experiment in which a train is going towards a group of people on a track, but you can switch the lane so that it only results in the death of one person. You will be responsible for the death of this person, but you saved the lives of five. Variants are thrown around to make the experiment more complex, of which Joel's predicament can be seen as one. Go with me on this metaphor. Ellie is tied to the track, but on the other track are the lives of millions of people who could be saved with the possible vaccine. Not only is switching the track going to kill these people, but Joel also has to kill multiple members of The Fireflies before he can get to the room where Ellie's surgery is happening, where he kills the only doctor capable of creating the vaccine, flipping the metaphorical switch. It is not a choice a lot of people agree with, but it's one you understand, for all its murkiness. And clearly, it's not a decision Joel is totally comfortable with, as he ends the game lying to Ellie. He tells her there were loads of people who had her immunity and that The Fireflies didn't need her at all. Ellie accepts this lie and for seven years, that was where their story finished.
For all the problems I have with it, I think the masterstroke of The Last of Us Part 2 is that it confronts the decision Joel made in very explicit terms. The story is set four years after the first game, finding Joel and Ellie as part of a community of others, which resembles a life almost close to one pre-outbreak. Their life is relatively idyllic, but is suddenly shattered when a group led by a woman named Abby appear outside of camp, kidnap Joel and brutally murder him. Their motives are initially unclear, but you can probably work out where we're headed with this, they feel like an act of revenge. Ellie is beside herself with grief and anger, and so vows to follow them to Seattle to enact revenge. We play as Ellie across four days as she hunts Abby, murdering anyone she recognises from the group that murdered Joel and not showing much charity when faced with anyone else in their faction. However, when Ellie and Abby meet again, the game switches focus and makes you play as Abby for these same four days. During this time, you learn what her relationship was with Joel.
Abby, and many of her friends who currently fight with her, used to be in The Fireflies. In fact, they were all based around the hospital where Ellie was taken to create the vaccine. The hospital that Joel shot his way through and murdered countless Fireflies in. The hospital where Abby's dad was working as a doctor, the doctor who was about to perform the operation on Ellie when Joel ran in and shot the doctor in the head. I still distinctly remember the moment in the game when I worked out Abby's story and feeling really impressed by it on a purely narrative level. What Joel did at the end of the first game was unforgivable. And so, he isn't forgiven. But when he dies, Ellie is forced to choose between continuing the cycle of violence or letting Joel's life go unavenged. She chooses the first, which is what drives the bulk of the narrative of TLOU2. Abby, however, is at her point of peace once Joel is dead. She has achieved what she felt was revenge, while also leaving Ellie and Joel's brother Tommy alive. She was so done with this vengeance that she is shocked when the two of them turn up in Seattle, which is where things get more complicated.
Ellie did not get justice and she did not get a happy ending. That is where violence brought her.
As I said, Ellie murders pretty much every single one of Abby's friends, so when the two meet Abby is very eager to murder Ellie in retalation. However, Abby is encouraged to leave Ellie alive by a young boy she rescued from a cult, an encouragement she acts on. Ellie is left alive and told to leave this be. For Ellie though, whose life has been violence, this can't be done. Even while she lives peacefully on a farm with her girlfriend, Tommy keeps popping by to talk about sightings of Abby in California. Ellie eventually picks up one of these leads and finds Abby being tortured and imprisoned by a group of scavengers. Ellie saves Abby from them only so she can kill Abby herself, which she attempts to do by punching her into submission in knee high water. Even in her malnourished state, Abby fights back and bites off one of Ellie's fingers, which leads Ellie to realise that there is no sense killing Abby at this point. She lets Abby go and Ellie returns to her farmhouse, now abandoned by her girlfriend. She did not get justice and she did not get a happy ending. That is where violence brought her.
So, that's the narrative. It is a long, stretching cycle of people killing to get what they want and to protect the ones they love, which causes the loved ones of those that have been killed to seek revenge and repeat the cycle. The cycle only ends for you when you die or when you give up vengeance, something Joel didn't manage and something it took Ellie a lot of attempts at vengeance to understand. But these are video games and they're also not products that exist in vacuums, so lets move on to the contexts that surround these acts of violence.
The most obvious context is that The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part 2 are video games. This sounds stupid, but it's a vital point to make in comparing how this story would work in a film or a book. These games are expensive and huge money makers for their company, meaning that players would be expecting to pay £60 for one on release. These are also games that then have merchandise surrounding them, like stickers, Funko Pops, ammo boosters as a reward for pre-ordering the game. It stakes the games out as product first, art second. There was a famous tweet that compared TLOU2 to Schindler's List, which this video does a great job at explaining is a silly thing to do, because of the way in which the stories are told. It's a bold thing to claim that your story is one about the ways in which violence can fracture the human psyche, but you immediately undercut your statement when you are trying to flog a Funko Pop that features your heroine covered in blood. Schindler's List, Come and See, Things Fall Apart, whatever serious and totemic work you want to argue for, they don't have figurines. Monetising your stories to this extent puts you at serious risk of devaluing your stories.
Speaking of value, this is where a current trend in video games comes in. Because they're so expensive, many customers expect a lot of content for their money, which does always feel weird. You don't celebrate buying a cinema ticket for a three hour film as opposed to a 90 minute one, you want a ticket for a film that tells its story in the right amount of time. As someone who thinks a lot about runtimes, wanting an unnecessary five hours tacked onto a game so that it lasts you 20 hours instead of 15 never sits right to me. Anyway, that example wasn't random, that's what you get with TLOU2. As I mentioned earlier, there is a section of the game where you switch from Ellie to Abby, in which the story isn't much progressed but we get to spend time with characters whom Ellie has already murdered. In theory it should work to build empathy, but it only goes so far when you already know you're not doing a good thing (more on that later). It dragged the game down for me and I became apathetic, to the point that I was exhausted by the end. Should a game like TLOU2 leave you exhausted by the end? Probably, but it left me in a state where I didn't want to ever play it again, because of extraneous sequences that didn't move the plot forward or enhance characters beyond emotional levels that they were already at.
You either already felt bad because you knew you were murdering a fake human or you already didn't care because it felt fun.
Which leads to yet another problem with this being a story told through a video game; it's fun to play. People paying £60 for a video game want to have fun playing it and the gameplay of both Last of Us games delivers that. Shooting is satisfying, stealth is scary, murder feels good... So why is this a game about how terrible violence is? NPCs (non-playable characters) will scream out names when they realise another NPC has been murdered, but you either already felt bad because you knew you were murdering a fake human or you already didn't care because it felt fun. That feeling of gameplay and narrative not lining up is called ludonarrative dissonance and I had it a lot. This gets taken to a really ridiculous extent if you play like me. I am a terrible shot, so I can't always hit the middle of a target, which led to me shooting the arms off of characters multiple times. If you do this, a character will scream, while they grab at their arm which is gushing blood. It's so ridiculous that it just made me laugh, more so every time I saw it. Think the opening scene of It (2017) and you're along the right tracks for comedically gruesome loss of arms. Did I feel bad doing the murder on these people? Often, yes. Did I have a choice in murdering them? Not if I wanted to finish the game. Importantly, did it feel fun to gather three NPCs in one spot and burn them with a Molotov? Yes. Yes it did. Violence felt good and it wasn't much of a choice, which is not the journey that Ellie went on.
This next part isn't so fun and apologies if you live with me and are reading this, you've heard me rant about this a lot. Naughty Dog had to exploit a lot of people to make this game. Almost universally, it was lower paid workers, coerced into working long hours over extended periods of time for fear of losing their jobs, only to see studio heads get the bulk of the financial reward. This, over the years building up to and during the creation of TLOU2, led to numerous designers and developers leaving the company, often as "stress casualties" or because they had burnt out. In turn that led to new employees needing to be hired and trained ruthlessly, to meet the high standard of polish in design that Naughty Dog have made themselves famous for. And do you know what the worst part of this culture of overworking and exploiting is? It works. Their games always sell and review exceptionally well, which means the company would frankly never have any reason to change as long as the praise and money keeps flowing. Even on a personal level, the approach works frustratingly well. I spent probably about an hour just breaking glass in TLOU2 because I enjoyed the way it fell so much. It's a level of polish that makes Naughty Dog games stand out, but I can't help but feel that no level of genuine human suffering is worth any piece of art, no matter how great.
We're moving close to wrapping up now, which is where I want to bring in the most damning point; I think these games are too obvious with their themes. In the way I've described the games to you it's maybe not so easy to extrapolate, but I worked out a lot of what both games were trying to tell me before they actually said it. I knew Joel was a bad person the minute he started shooting in the hospital. I knew Abby's quest for vengeance was going to be built from Joel's decision. And I knew that Ellie's quest for vengeance would be futile, whether she killed Abby or not. That I understood the themes of the games isn't the problem, but the fact that the games, especially Part 2, seemed so satisfied when they revealed them is. If every character death, important to the story or not, is complete with another character screaming their name in agony, I'm aware that what I'm doing isn't good (even if murder feels good in the video game). They are points that could be made in much less time. I think there is a good five hours you can cut out of Part 2 which would do nothing but tighten up the narrative and make it more of a gut punch for the audience, but we just have to squeeze in the content, don't we?
Spec Ops gives you a while to work out if you feel like a hero (spoiler, you probably won't), whereas The Last of Us and especially The Last of Us Part 2 make you feel like a bad person really quickly.
I think I'm so critical of The Last of Us games because of Spec Ops: The Line. I played Spec Ops quite a while ago now, but I think about it a lot. It starts as a regular military shooter in which you and other soldiers are sent into Dubai to kill an insane general (the game takes liberal lashings from Heart of Darkness). The start of the game is fun, killing feels great, but a creeping dread sets in. You're seeing things that aren't quite there, your squad are arguing with each other over your actions and the loading screen messages have changed from tips on how to most efficiently murder to bleak messages like "Do you feel like a hero yet?". Spec Ops gives you a while to work out if you feel like a hero (spoiler, you probably won't), whereas The Last of Us and especially The Last of Us Part 2 make you feel like a bad person really quickly. As the person playing this game, you can't turn the game back on me and make me feel guilty for my actions when they were 1. Designed to be fun 2. Obviously bad decisions and 3. Delivered to me with a shocking lack of self awareness.
Don't accept when bullshit is thrown in your face by corporations.
The discussion of this topic is murky in a really interesting way through both Last of Us games, but it comes down to this; I'm tired. You made me like the characters who did bad things, but I was never able to forget the bad things they did. Having them live with their decisions that I disagree with is fine, but skip the ludonarrative dissonance, skip the Funko Pops and skip the fucking exploitation of your overworked employees. There is a great discussion of violent delights and their violent ends in these games, but they're buried under a fog of late capitalistic bullshit. We can excavate them if we change what the industry looks like, but I worry that a blockbuster video game like this will never be able to fully reach its goals if the industry only toxifies further. So please, play interesting and challenging games like Spec Ops: The Line or Disco Elysium or Nier: Automata, but don't consume them with a blind fever. Consider them. Chew over them. Criticise them if you think they deliver contradictory messages on themes. And don't accept when bullshit is thrown in your face by corporations like Naughty Dog.