Monday 1 July 2013

It’s not the end of violence, but you can see it from here

(Disclaimer: this article contains major spoilers for The Last Of Us)

Since its release, Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us has been praised for its unparallelled atmosphere, narrative ambiguity and character development, but also criticised for its propagation of certain storytelling tropes. This analysis takes a look at the way the game deploys and challenges these clichés.

 The medium of videogames is in a transitional period. After years of being dominated by male-focused, violence-heavy narratives, the rise of indie developers and the maturation and diversification of the audience has birthed a vital counter-culture, which has grown so large that it can no longer be ignored by the industry at large.

 More and more, publishers and developers are called upon to rethink their approach to characters, violence and the integration of gameplay and narrative. Lazy tropes are called out, sexism and other nasty prejudices no longer tolerated.

 Unfortunately, the battle is far from won. Though the conversation is starting to change, the adoption of these ideas by AAA developers is moving at a snail’s pace. Though arguably the recent Tomb Raider reboot succeeds in emancipating Lara Croft into a three-dimensional character from her beginnings as a teenager’s sexual fantasy, this victory was tainted by sexist comments by the game’s executive producer and the torture porn imagery within the game itself. And the second blockbuster release of the year, Bioshock Infinite, was deeply problematic on a variety of levels (among them: the narratively dissonant violent gameplay, the portrayal of the game’s black characters and the naivete and subservience of its female protagonist).

 In these tumultuous times, we are confronted with yet another male-led, violent epic, and yet another game in which we’re tasked with protecting a female character: Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us. The game was released to enormous critical acclaim, but also to justified criticism: do we really need to roleplay as a tormented white man again? Indeed, the introduction to the game confronts us with that most tired of tropes: a female character being killed to serve as grist for the emotional mill of the male protagonist.

 However, as the game progresses, The Last Of Us increasingly challenges the notions of male heroism and exceptionalism it at first seemed to embrace. First off, the adult female characters in the game are, in direct contravention of conventional stereotype, far more capable and less driven by emotion than Joel. Both Tess and Marlene are pragmatic characters with well-defined goals. The contrast with the Joel we meet in the game’s opening chapters is stark: he is an utterly broken man, barely able to get out of bed in the morning. Interestingly, this paints the male presence in the story as far more emotionally dependent than the women: Tess and Marlene must have lost family too, but somehow, they have succeeded in moving on.

 This turns out to be the central theme of the game: Joel’s failure at living without being able to take care of someone, or without being in charge of someone else’s well-being. In essence, it is about Joel’s inability to love selflessly. Time after time, the game underlines this:

 - Joel can’t accept Ellie’s love until she tells him that she depends on him emotionally;
 - in the game’s Winter chapter, Ellie’s independence is presented in direct counterpoint to Joel’s convalescence. Only when she is in danger does Joel recover, only for Ellie to rescue herself;
 - Joel’s most sickening and least hesitant acts of violence (both of them acts of torture) are perpetrated when he’s “rescuing” Ellie;
 - in the Spring chapter, Joel is ready to call this whole “saving humanity” thing off (though he presents it as concern for Ellie); it’s Ellie who makes the choice to go on.

 The ending of the game supports this narrative in no uncertain terms. By pitting the survival of humanity against the survival of the “damsel in distress”, the game makes the selfish nature of Joel’s love crystal clear. From the aforementioned torture scene to the brutal killing of the brain surgeon who’s about to operate on Ellie, his rescue mission transpires in the ugliest way possible. And the worst is saved for last: Joel murders Ellie’s surrogate mother Marlene in cold blood, symbolically ending any female interference in his relationship with his “daughter”. Even Joel’s slow-motion escape reinforces the sense that his actions are more about him “heroically” correcting his past failures than about Ellie.

 The final scene shows the human cost of this monstrous behaviour: in a devastatingly ambiguous conclusion Ellie presses Joel on the truth, but he chooses to lie to her. The conflicting emotions on her face show as much sadness and disappointment as they do relief at her continued survival.

 Joel, in the end, represents the utter failure of a man to change with the times and abandon his traditional role of master and protector. His culturally programmed dependence on being able to fulfill that role makes him cling to it ever more violently, with predictably disastrous results.

 We’re still waiting for an AAA game that does away with the primacy of masculinity and violence altogether, and it's inarguable that the game is partially predicated on the clichés that it works so hard to subvert. But as a critique on the ultimate destructiveness of the “male protector” trope and the way that most games conflate heroism with violence, The Last Of Us represents an important step in the right direction.


  1. Excellent post. In a way, it points out the subterfuge inherent in all works of art.

  2. On my own, I've arrived at a similar conclusion-- that The Last of Us is a criticism of the very tropes so many video game critics lazily accuse it of playing to. I'm glad I'm not the only one who has figured it out, and your analysis is more thorough and insightful than anything I can come up with.

    This game is like a Paul Verhoeven movie (though less overt in its satire)-- It uses the blockbuster medium to criticize its own tropes.

    1. I completely agree. Thanks for the compliments (and since I'm Dutch I always appreciate a shout-out to Paul Verhoeven)!

  3. I like this piece but I'm going to cherry-pick this part:

    "Joel, in the end, represents the utter failure of a man to change with the times and abandon his traditional role of master and protector."

    Not really. SPOILERS Joel's other option was to prioritize the human race over his selfish needs; he didn't. He would be trading his micro-protector role for something of a macro-protector. He didn't. No matter what choice he picked, he would likely have still gone to live his life the way it had to be lived in the circumstances, by killing to survive. It's flat-out naive to think people like that aren't needed on your side in a brutal future like TLOU.

    1. Sure, but what I meant was that the game itself codes that kind of "survival-at-all-costs" behaviour as a problematic thing by the end. The game openly questions whether Joel's actions were at all necessary by contrasting him with his brother, who turned away from the life of a hunter and tries to rebuild some sort of civilised community (led, notably, by a woman - just like the Fireflies). There's a great article at the New Statesman that explains this part of it quite well:

  4. I do not much agree with this analysis. It’s one thing to laud a videogame for portraying women in a non-sexualised manner, it’s another thing to read all these gender politics in a game like The Last of Us. I also see no justification in criticising this game for having a white male at the centre. His being white flows naturally from the fact that this story is rooted and set in the Western World, which (still) has a predominantly white population and gaming community. His being male is offset by the other main character being female.

    Now, Joel alone does not equal the male presence in this story. You contrast him with two prominent adult women in the game, but you are ignoring other prominent adult men in the game, who are entirely capable, pragmatic and goal-oriented, namely Tommy, Bill and Henry. But more importantly, Joel is no less capable than any adult female character. On the contrary, he’s adept at killing and manages to survive while they do not. Joel may be broken, but so is Marlene in her own way, as she eventually caves to the wishes of her subordinates. Tess and Marlene must have lost family too, indeed, but we have no indication theirs was as crushing as his (i.e. failing to protect one’s child and having it dying in one’s arms). Up until Tess’s death, Joel is not at all driven by emotion; he simply doesn’t care. It is rather Tess who appeals to emotion by reminding him they’re shitty people. Had Tess instead of Joel survived, who’s to say she wouldn’t develop a strong mother instinct and so be emotionally driven?

    Marlene is no surrogate mother; she refers to Ellie as “the fucking kid” in one of her recordings and after caving to her subordinates’ wishes decides to hastily sacrifice her without informing her, let alone asking for her consent, whilst telling Joel he will be shot if he so much as tries to talk to Ellie. Joel’s subsequent actions are not that of an “emotionally dependent”, broken or selfish man, but of a strong-minded father who is protective of his child. Killing Marlene, the brain surgeon and other Fireflies is not an act of “monstrous behaviour”, but the surest way of neutralising all those determined to murder his (adopted) daughter for the off chance a vaccin might be created and distributed.

    Only áfter this whole ordeal does Ellie divulge to Joel her survivor guilt and her general(!) readiness for death. Before that, all Joel knew was that Ellie and he were making plans for their time together after meeting with the Fireflies. Had Ellie told him about her sentiments befóre their meeting with the Fireflies, Joel might have reacted very differently.

  5. Continued:

    Ellie of course is terribly conflicted: she knows the meeting with the Fireflies must’ve gone horribly wrong (why else would she have woken up in a moving car wearing a hospital dress?), while she may have been ready to sacrifice herself, but at the same time: she knows Joel cares about her and vice versa. By letting him swear (falsely) that his account is true, she lets him shoulder the terrible burden of not doing everything in their power to “save” mankind. And he knows it. The fact that Ellie goes along with Joel and his lie instead of truly confronting him and seeking out the Fireflies again, shows that she is ultimately at peace with his decision and happy enough to live with him. Mankind is in dire straits, with or without a vaccin, but the two of them, tied to communities like Tommy’s, have a chance of making it. Note that the developers have stated that whether or not there will be a sequel, and whether or not it will feature Joel and Ellie, they consider this particular story about the vaccin and the Fireflies as finished. Ellie has clearly chosen Joel.

    Make no mistake, despite questionable acts Joel is more of a hero than the lead characters of countless generic action games. Similarly, despite questionable acts Ellie is a heroine. The Last of Us is better and more mature than most other games, not because it is “a critique on the ultimate destructiveness of the “male protector” trope and the way that most games conflate heroism with violence,” but because it is simply a well told, moving story about the bond between an older man and a girl trying to survive in desperate times.

    1. Thanks for the exhaustive counter-analysis. Those are certainly all valid readings as well, and what I especially admire about the game is the fact that it allows for such wildly different interpretations, making it a rich source for critical analysis. On NeoGaf and in spoilercasts, the discussion about Joel's actions was prevalent too, and I think our individual reaction to it has a lot to do with our personal set of values and beliefs.