Welcome to Painting with Pixels! Each week, I’ll be picking apart exceptional games to show you why this newborn storytelling medium has evolved from a trivial pursuit to a legitimate art form much like the film or the novel. This week is all about the 2013 smash hit, The Last of Us. Can this harrowing tale of post apocalyptic America be considered art?
Let’s find out.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US FOLLOW.
For the majority of the game, the player takes control of Joel, voiced and motion captured by Troy Baker. When we first meet Joel during the prologue, he’s a loving, if somewhat distant single father who is struggling to make ends meet. After the infection strikes and the world falls apart, the story picks up twenty years later and the Joel we knew has disappeared almost completely. Left in his place is a grizzled, amoral shell of a man still unable to cope with the loss of his only child. This brings us to our question of the day. Why is Joel a compelling character? What makes him worthy to stand out among the multitudes of brooding protagonists populating post apocalyptic fiction?
When looking at a character, I generally ask myself three simple questions:
1. Do they feel real?
As we guide Joel along his journey, we see that while he’s the protagonist, he is by no means a hero. When he correctly anticipates an ambush by bandits, he’s asked how he knew what would happen and replies simply: “I’ve been on both sides”. He’s a smuggler, a thief and a murderer; a man who stopped living decades ago and now only survives. Throughout the early stages of the game it becomes clear to the player that while Joel exists day by day, eating, sleeping and slaughtering infected by the droves (general post apocalyptic survivor chores) he has no semblance of purpose. The only meaningful connection he has is with another survivor, Tess. The nature of their relationship is never made clear and he insists on keeping even her at arms length.
For all intents and purposes, he’s a complete scumbag.
When I ask whether a character feels “real”, I don’t necessarily mean whether they feel as if they could exist in the real world, what I mean is whether I can understand and sympathize with why that character is the way they are given the world around them. Which is why Joel works so well as a protagonist and why that prologue depicting his loss and the effect it had on him was so important. He’s not perfect, he doesn’t make the right choices. To call him morally ambiguous would be an understatement. But through all that, we understand him. Everything he does, everything he is continues to be informed on some level by that loss. Because of this, everything he does makes sense. We understand immediately why Joel has little regard for authority and little regard for human life. We understand why Joel is estranged from his family and why he refuses to trust or connect with anyone. He isn’t perfect and that’s exactly why he feels so real.
2. Do they change?
The first glimmer of hope in his murky existence comes in the form a teenage girl named Ellie, who he has to shepherd across the country as she may hold the key to curing the infection. Initially, she’s nothing but cargo to him but over time, they begin to bond and the foundations of a tenuous father-daughter relationship begin to form. This relationship is the crux of his change as a character and because we understand him to be so fundamentally defined by loss, this change makes sense. You can probably see the running pattern here. The change isn’t abrupt or unfounded. They don’t suddenly love each other after a few days of travelling. Their relationship isn’t always onwards and upwards, it’s not a completely steady progression, just like a real developing relationship. They have their ups and downs and with every beat in their story, we understand why this is happening.
By the end of the story, Joel isn’t a completely new man. Hell, one would be hard pressed to even call him a good man by the end. He makes a decision that is fundamentally selfish, in many ways immoral and irresponsible. After finding out that in order develop the cure that would save humanity, Ellie would have to die, he must choose between the human race itself and her life. He chooses her and in doing so, perhaps doomed mankind. It’s a decision that many have debated, condemned and justified. But the ending is a matter for another blog. The point is, that by the end, he has changed, but this change is justified and founded on extensive, dynamic and logical development across several hours of game play. By the end of the game, he’s learned to live again. This brings us to the third and final question.
3. What is their purpose?
What I mean by their “purpose” is, what function are they supposed to fulfil to the audience? What message are they supposed to be sending or what reaction are they supposed to invoke? To answer my answer this question, you have to understand that to me, The Last of Us is fundamentally a story about two things: Loss and hope.
As I’ve mentioned before, loss informs every aspect of Joel’s character. He exists in spite of loss and everything he does is because of it. He shows the audience how far a man can be pushed, how far morality can be bent due to tragedy. In many ways, Joel has allowed his loss to become a disease, turning him into just as much of a monster as those who were infected.
In this world, there is no hope. It’s reiterated many times that even if the characters do survive, death is just around the corner. Existence in this world is an endless cycle of murder and horror, with brief intervals of peace in between. But through the developing father-daughter relationship between Joel and Ellie, we see that even in this world, hope can exist. His words in the final scene of the game sum up both his message and one of the enduring messages of the game:
“I struggled for a long time with surviving. And you – no matter what. You keep finding something to fight for.”
This is what Joel did, at the expense of everyone else. Was he justified in doing what he did? Who knows? It’s not something as simple as right and wrong. For Joel, that wasn’t important. He clung onto that last shred of hope and fought for it above all else. To me, that’s what Joel is all about. The idea that even through all of the loss and pain, even if there is one single glimmer of hope, you can keep fighting.