What I don’t like about The Last of Us (from the beginning)

The Last of Us is a very popular and highly-rated game. It’s notable in that it’s one of the few such AAA games produced in America that is primarily story-driven, which is something I appreciate it for. However, though it is widely acclaimed for its strong story, including on this blog, I’d like to provide a counterpoint opinion based on its general public image (as crafted by its marketing) and its early expositional stages. Because for a variety of reasons, I put down this game after my first few hours with no desire to come back to it.

One of the primary reasons for my distaste was actually physical and technical. I am prone to simulation sickness, you see, and playing or watching the Last of Us causes an ever-increasing sense in me that my stomach is leeching poison into the rest of my body the longer I play and/or watch. To be fair, this phenomenon would cause anyone to want to put down any game, regardless of how good it is on other accounts, but on the other hand, there are technological steps that can be taken by the developers to reduce sickness (such as including an option to increase Field of View or doing your best to keep your game running at 60+ frames per second) which were not taken in the production of this game. The odd thing is that being in 3rd person usually helps to prevent simulation sickness, but in this case it’s not helpful. Regardless, this affected my experience of the game negatively.

My other issues with the game were associated with how it set itself up during its early stages. Based on the things you are generally expected to know about the game before playing it (ie that it’s about a Zombie Apocalypse in which the main hero, a rugged man, travels with a young girl) you can immediately tell certain things about how the game is going to go. The instant you start the intro by controlling Joel’s pre-apocalyptic daughter, you know that said intro will end in her death (which it does), because she’s not the girl Joel’s escorting. Knowing that, you can extrapolate a few things based on how stories in general and other stories patterns in particular work. By the Law of Conservation of Detail, you know that the game would not have spent its entire intro on Joel’s daughter if her dramatic and climactic death didn’t profoundly affect the rest of the story somehow. And, since it was the intro in which she died (right after displaying a caring relationship with protagonist, mind) you know that it exists to set up the emotional conditions in which the rest of the plot takes place. Since she’s strongly connected to our protagonist, we can guess how her death does that: ie in its effect on him. Add to this that this protagonist of ours is a grizzled man with no other dependents or female loved ones living for most of the game in the zombie apocalypse, and that the plot revolves around his relationship with a completely different girl of the same age as his dead daughter, and you have a recipe for a frustratingly common, very male-oriented plot: Strong father violently loses his female loved one, and as a result must learn through interaction with a surrogate how to love again. This standard plot uses its female characters as plot devices to move its male protagonist’s growth along, and not for the sake of their own lives and growths. A lot can be saved by quality writing of the characters in question (and what I’ve seen of Ellie’s dialogue is absolutely first-class quality writing) but if the female characters are written even half as well as the male protagonist of this plot, I’m going to care a lot more about them than him, because first of all, I love well-written female characters when they happen in gaming, and secondly, from a male point of view, I’m sick of this male character arc. This is one of the few ways I ever see fatherhood handled in media. As a man who really likes children, and would maybe like to have some someday, I would like to see father-daughter relationships that DON’T revolve around the daughter’s death, that have meaningful interactions beyond anger, grief and/or revenge, in summation, that deal with a fundamental relationship that I may someday have in such a way that models to me what’s great about it, about her within the relationship, what to love about it, and how to carry it on in a healthy, happy way.

Something that is frequently praised within The Last of Us (as in our own Isaiah’s excellent post about what he likes about The Last of Us, linked here) is its morality. It’s true that in the current game industry, we rightfully applaud strides taken towards complex morality. It’s an important part of the growth of video games as a medium. Sometimes, though, I feel like “complex morality” is taken to refer to dark, or edgy morality, as this drive is often expressed in the context of death and screwing people over. A particular moment that bothered me in the early parts of the game is the moment the game chooses to use to teach you how to shoot your gun. In a room full of zombifying spores, you come across a trapped man with a broken gas mask. Of course, there’s nothing you can do for him. The only good you can do him is to kill him. While it makes a great deal of sense to do this from a pure design perspective (it’s a perfect moment to learn: your target’s relatively stationary and you have as much time to mess up and experiment as you want without fear of punishment) from a story perspective, I find this cruel mercy trope dehumanizing. You are told to see the man as a zombie already, and the only human thing left about him is that he is suffering, suffering you can end by murdering him. This trope tells you that it’s a good thing, really, killing. It’s not presented as a choice. It’s morally complex because it’s an “unexpected” way of seeing a particular moral quandary. But the fact that there is an implied right answer to this problem, in fact, removes the complexity from the equation, and leaves behind just an unpleasant twist. This problematic situation can and has been handled more humanly, often by putting a plot-important character on the other side of the gun. An excellent example of this is [*SPOILER ALERT*] the end of season 1 of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, in which Lee is the one doomed to zombification, and Clementine is the one on the other side of the gun. One of the things I love about the scene is that, though both your options, to kill Lee or to leave him, are both terribly sad, the choice is not portrayed as it so often is, as requiring you to choose the less terrible of two wrong answers. Rather than picking which option not to take, I felt like both options had good reasons to be picked. [*SPOILERS OVER*] I’m not looking for characters whose choices are generally morally questionable. I’m tired of being asked to empathize with people whose actions the game portrays as bad. And at least the part of the game just after the intro deals mostly in bad people. Perhaps, as character arcs generally go, they get better, but for the time being, I’m not interested in dealing with them.

3 thoughts on “What I don’t like about The Last of Us (from the beginning)

  1. Thanks very much for the pingback on this one. I must respectively disagree with your viewpoints on the plot arc. While I agree that Joel is a central character, Ellie is very much at the heart of the plot, and a strong argument could made for her being the true protagonist. While the story begins largely focused on Joel, as the game progresses, it shifts to center a great deal more on Ellie and their relationship. While there are obvious parallels to be drawn with Joel’s late daughter, the dynamic between Joel and Ellie proves far more complex and dynamic than her simply serving as a surrogate child. I’ll digress in the interest of avoiding spoilers, but I truly believe “The Last of Us” and its narrative to be great deal more than archetypal storytelling.

    1. Well, when I put it down, it did seem very much inclined to open up a little (and like I said, the writing and acting that I was seeing was truly excellent and praiseworthy). On the one hand, I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to what I haven’t seen based on that promising writing. On the other hand, having been spoiled for the ending, I can’t help but notice that the most significant choice conveniently swings back into Joel’s hands, even when it’s not about him. In games, there’s more to consider than just protagonism, there’s also the question of player control, because who the player controls determines who the story pivots most around, especially at its most crucial moments. Ellie can be as plot important and well-written as she wants, but as long as it’s Joel we control during the pivotal moments of the game, it is him the story will arrange itself around, because it is only through him that it will give itself into the player’s hands.
      I don’t doubt that the game does a lot of good and interesting stuff with its core narrative, stuff that takes it beyond archetypal, but I just don’t like that core narrative to begin with.
      Annnnd I also wasn’t looking forward to finding out how Tess left the plot. Even if it was worked out well, playing through with that kind of dread is no fun.
      Kinda wish I could’ve stuck around to see more of Ellie, though. Timing was bad, unfortunately.

  2. I just wanted to say that I appreciate your counterpoint argument – it can be hard to criticize such a beloved game. I think your point about the recent preponderance of games about fatherhood is interesting, especially that they seem to revolve around father-daughter relationships. I too feared that this game would devolve into a lot of typical tropes, but I agree with Isaiah’s comment that relationship portrayed was a surprising amount of nuance. Thanks for the interesting post.

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