Who’s Really the Bad Guy Here? Morality, Context, Perspective, and THE LAST OF US…

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This is not a review of  The Last of Us, but there is some fairly major spoilers within. I will say this though, The Last of Us has some really great story telling going on inside it’s violent game play. It’s not so surprising that the cut-scenes edited together hold up pretty well as a sort of “movie.” This is a Naughty Dog production, and they are generally pretty decent story tellers. If you’d like to just watch the story there are a bunch of YouTube videos that present the game’s cut-scenes and notable game play moments in this format. Like, say, this one! Here’s a link. It’s worth your time even if you’re not a gamer. It’s just a good story that’s told well.

So, I just finished The Last of Us recently, and like I usually do after I finish a game, I go to the internet looking for some thorough criticism, or analysis. This is a big game for this year, and the coverage has been pretty “aggressive,” to say the least. It wasn’t hard to find videos and articles of people talking about the game in all different types of context, but the one aspect of the game’s narrative that I found most interesting didn’t seem to get much more than lip service. This is a story about the cost of surviving in a world where humanity is in it’s last throes. What makes living in hell worth it? How do we define a life worth living? Is just hanging on a selfish act, that has more to do with habit than practicality? Well, that’s the subtext anyways. On it’s face it’s about getting Ellie to a group of revolutionary types, because she holds the key to humanities survival, and they are fighting to find a cure to the “infection.” Honestly, the surface level narrative is the least interesting thing about the story. It’s pretty predictable, and none of the plot twists come as any real surprise if you are at all familiar with these types of stories and tropes. The real substantive element of the narrative can be found in the characters and their interactions with each other and the decaying world they reside in.

The characters in The Last of Us, are impressively well drawn. The performances and the direction of the games cut-scenes are extremely well executed. The level of nuance in the characterizations are really impressive, and trump a lot of movies that I’ve seen lately. It’s this attention to detail that allows us to really get a sense of these people. Their struggles, and inferred history, all come together to make their dispositions clear, and relate-able. This is a harsh world, and for those that have lived through the fall of society have had to become colder, and their moral compass has been skewed. The_Last_of_Us_Concept_Art_-_FloodedThe brilliance of the way the story unfolds, in terms of the characters, is the acknowledgement of something that is decidedly human. The ability, and need, to justify our moral compromises. Very rarely do people ever willfully paint themselves in the role of “the bad guy.” That’s just not how people operate. No matter the logical hoops we have to leap through to explain away our actions, it’s just the way we are. The world of the game also posits another interesting aspect to the “morality” of the times, if society has broken down, has the entirety of our excepted social mores changed? Has the harshness of the world redefined these things for us, because of the lengths one must go just to survive? Just like most things in The Last of Us, the truth exists somewhere in the middle. Everything about this universe is painted in grey, and there are no easy answers. It gives us some good food for thought as we move forward.

Joel, the main protagonist, is the person we spend the most time with, and probably know the most about upfront. At first he’s presented as a hard working and loving father, but not in the usual cliche way. Right from the start, the brief time we spend with him before everything goes down presents someone that feels tangible. Joel_and_SarahYou’ve met someone like him before in your lifetime. He’s tired, a little sad, and already a little desperate. The story shows us this just from a few moments with him having to deal with life in general. It’s the way he talks to his daughter, Sarah, and the conversation he has with his brother on the phone that gives us these little clues as to the state he’s in. There’s a bunch of these “clues” scattered about the opening moments, and set up the man he becomes. In a seemingly insignificant moment early on, while driving out of the town they live in, Joel instructs his brother to speed past a family that is in desperate need of help. It should be noted that he does this without having any real idea of what is going on yet. Even before the real “struggle” begins, Joel is already showing us that he is more interested in saving himself and those with him than lending a helping hand. It’s a dark moment for the character, but it tells you a lot about him. He’s a “self preservationist” long before he really knows that he might have to be. So, it would seem that Joel’s sense of “morality,” or “moral obligation” might already be a little damaged.

After the opening, the story skips twenty years. This was really smart from a narrative stand point. We have no idea what Joel has done, or gone through over that course of that time. It adds a little bit of mystery to his character, and from then on in the story we still feel like we have things to learn about him. It turns out that Joel has become something of a smuggler in the proceeding years, an element of the criminal underground, and the ways he goes about living could be considered cold at best. He’s a harsh man, because it’s a harsh world, or at least that’s what he tells himself. They are really up front with how brutal the people Joel associates with are, and through a few conversations we get the sense that Joel is probably just as gruesome, if not worse. In one early instance he’s even involved in a straight up execution, but considering the way in which people act in this world, maybe it couldn’t be helped. The Last of UsAt least that’s the way we are made to feel about it. There is not even a hint of hesitation before the deed is done. The nature of this being a “necessary” action to take is brought on by the morality of the people involved, and that includes Joel and his partner. It’s because of people like this that the world is the way it is from a “moral” stand point. As harsh as the world has become, humanity, just as it does today in our lives, determines the way in which we treat one another. The social contract has changed, and we wrote the legislation. Desperation can create in us a sense of righteous selfishness, because “What am I supposed to do? This is about survival,” and when put in those terms things that would be considered otherwise immoral become easier to justify. Even when asked to become the ward of Ellie, Joel wants nothing to do with it because of the danger it poses to himself. Even when he discovers that she might represent a cure for the infection, Joel would rather her just go on her way alone. The only reason he ends up taking on this “mission” is because as his partner is about to die, from the infection, and she makes him promise to get it done. Obviously, as the journey goes on, he becomes quite affectionate of Ellie, and is even a paternal presence for her, but it doesn’t change his “nature.” He still wants to survive on his own terms, his own way, and that includes Ellie.

One of the great successes of the game is that through the performance, by Troy Baker, we never don’t like Joel. Even after he engages in some truly heinous deeds. The fact that we spend so much time with him creates an empathy to his disposition and actions, and I would say for about two-thirds of the game we never are really given anyone to juxtapose him against. It all seems par for the course in terms of morality. Even when you literally slaughter entire groups of men. chrome 2013-07-02 12-03-01-83That’s the thing about The Last of Us, you would imagine that you’d spend most of the game fighting off the zombie like infected, but in actuality you spend most of your time fighting off other survivors. It makes sense. If this version of the future were to actually take place, there would most likely be a lot of little organized communities doing what they could to survive. Some of them would be worse than others, of course, but in their own ways they feel like what they are doing is necessary. However “evil” they seem. There is a sequence in the game when you are traveling through a town and suddenly a group of scavengers comes through, and Joel immediately sees them as a threat and basically proceeds to slaughter about fifty guys. Granted, the game doesn’t give you any choice in the matter, so there’s a little bit of narrative disconnect, but the idea that both sides immediately assume that the other side is a “dangers” is definitely present. While your dispensing some post apocalyptic justice, every once in awhile an enemy will beg for their lives. Of course, you end up bashing their brains in, but this brief moment of humanity reminds you how brutal this all really is. Even the “bad guys” don’t want to die.

Later on in the game, while playing as Ellie, you come across two hunters in the woods. They go through the whole mistrust business, and end up coming to an agreement based on making a trade of food for medicine. One of the hunters leaves to get the medicine, and the other stays behind with Ellie. It’s revealed that the hunters name is David. He comes off as genuinely warm and concerned for the safety of this young girl. In fact, just to make Ellie feel more secure, he hands over his rifle, and allows her to point it at him. He never comes off as anything less than understanding. He’s like the “nicer” Joel. Tough, and strong willed, but warm and understanding. He comes across as a possible ally, and has to prove it soon after they meet, as they are beset upon by a horde of infected. JamesThey get through it, obviously, and their bond becomes a little stronger. At the moment where their new found trust is at it’s strongest, David reveals to her that he had sent out some of his men to gather supplies, and most of them were killed by a “mad man” who happened to be traveling with a little girl. His community of survivors look at Joel as the villain. It’s all about perspective, and considering the circumstances, both sides of this equation have their “righteous position,” but at the same time, they have collectively decided that “kill or be killed” is the way that we progress as people. The most surprising thing about this scene is that David never once casts blame on Ellie. I assume it’s because of her age, and considering the way that they take the character, it makes sense. What this entire sequence really shows us is the idea of how perspective changes who’s right and who’s wrong. Who’s the aggressor and who’s on the defensive. Every party thinks that they are doing what is necessary to “survive,” and at a certain point they have decided that nothing is too far.

I found it unfortunate the way they took the character of David, and by extension his “group” of people. They basically turn him into a cannibalistic pedophile, and undermines the themes that seem to be at play. It makes it way too easy to hate him. It would have been a really great opportunity to directly juxtapose the characters of Joel and David. Instead, they go the route of “Well, Joel can be pretty bad, but this dude is just a sicko!” chrome 2013-07-02 13-45-38-69It skews the perspective aspect of the proceedings, in what I feel, is an unfair way. It would have been much more interesting if they were only as bad as Joel, or maybe even less brutal. Maybe they could have represented a community that was doing all they could to repair the “moral compass” of society. They didn’t go this way though, and it lessens the impact of what could have really drove home the themes of this story. It justifies the brutality of Joel’s torture scene and Ellie’s escape, in a way that seems too neat, honestly, and ends up presenting the duo with nothing more than a few more people to be considered as righteously dispatched cannon fodder. It’s a real missed opportunity, because they set it up like it’s going to go in a more interesting direction, and it undercuts what is very clearly the sub-text of the story. It does still give a good example of perspective, and context in terms of “good guys,” and “bad guys.”

Towards the end of the game, you arrive at your destination. Right before you come across the Fireflies, Ellie is knocked unconscious, and has no knowledge of what happens next. During a conversation with one of the groups leaders, Marlene, we discover that the only way to obtain what is needed to create a cure from Ellie would cause her to die. Joel isn’t having it. Since we have spent the majority of the game with Joel and Ellie, we tend to agree with this assertion. We don’t want to see Ellie die, but the thing is, the very survival of our species is at stake. tlou_ellie-and-marleneConsidering the journey that Joel and Ellie have gone on together, it makes complete sense that Joel would do anything to protect her, but is he right? This isn’t an easy decision for anyone involved. Marlene shows a lot of trepidation, and regret, but what is she supposed to do? She’s not a bad person, and the Fireflies don’t really come off as a bad group of people. They are fighting for the entirety of humanity; not just their own survival on an individual level. That’s why they learn to live with the sacrifices they’ve made. Marlene has lost droves of people to the infected, marauders, or the military, and it’s all been for this moment. It’s an easy perspective to empathize with. This motivational dichotomy exposes Joel as kind of a selfish man. He needs Ellie to survive. She represents a reason to keep going, to keep living, and without her he might just give up at this point, but he doesn’t want to give up. He doesn’t want to die. So he holds on to his new found reason for living. It’s a selfish stance that is less altruistic once we separate ourselves a bit, and allow some subjectivity. Having said that, I still didn’t want to see Ellie die. No matter the cost, and since he has become her “father,” for lack of a better term, it’s understandable.

In the final moments of the hospital sequence, where Joel has to fight his way to Ellie, we dispatch a lot of Fireflies. It’s a slaughter, really. They are both right, in a way, and the Fireflies side of things may even be “more right.”   Once Joel makes his way to the operating room, he finds three doctors getting ready to operate. This one of the only times as a player that we have a choice to make. We have the option to kill one or all of the doctors. Well, I’m pretty sure you have to kill at least one doctor, he points a scalpel at you and is blocking the way, but I could be wrong about this. ku-xlargeAnyways, you rescue Ellie, who is still unconscious, and carry her down to the parking garage. There you are intercepted by Marlene, who pleads with you to “do the right thing.” It’s clear that Joel kind of knows what he’s doing is wrong, and there is even a moment where you expect him to hand over Ellie, but, even a midst some hesitation, he shoots Marlene. Maybe he feels he’s already come to far, and that’s his justification. Once Joel puts the sleeping Ellie in a car he returns to Marlene, who is trying to crawl away, and she begs for her life. Joel coldly executes her, but he does it so that Ellie will remain “safe.” This is how he justifies it. A little later, Ellie wakes up in the car as they are headed back to Tommy’s camp, and asks Joel what happened. He lies to her. He tells her that there are dozens like her, but nothing could be done, and that the Fireflies had stopped looking for a cure. Again, this hearkens back to how Joel needs Ellie to keep going, because in her he’s found purpose in life, and without her he would be lost.

It’s interesting that throughout this story Joel, as a character, doesn’t really change all that much. He’s grown attached to Ellie, sure, but it hasn’t really changed his out look on the world, and what it means to survive in it. This is especially highlighted in the final scene between Ellie and himself, right before they are about to return to Tommy’s camp. Ellie talks about having survivors guilt, and implies that she’s disappointed that she couldn’t be the one to save humanity. originalJoel, in an effort to help her make sense of it all, explains to her his philosophy on life and survival. As far as he’s concerned it’s about finding something to live for, and doing everything you can to keep it. Even at the cost of ones own soul, it would seem. It’s not about some “greater good” for him. He’s completely individualistic about it. During this sequence, we get the sense that Ellie doesn’t really believe his story about what happened at the hospital, and asks him if what he said was the truth. Joel sticks to his guns, and confidently reaffirms his lie as truth. After a few moments of hesitation, Ellie simply say’s “Okay,” but you can still feel the doubt. Going back to Tommy’s with Joel represents a hopeful, and maybe happy future for her, and in some ways she needs to hear the lie again to absolve herself of guilt. If she for certain knew that Joel was lying, and still decided to stay with him she would be miserable. Essentially, Joel has damned humanity, and if Ellie knows this then she would be complicit in said damnation. It’s an incredibly poignant moment, and speaks volumes about the nature of existence, and how we define what’s worth existing for.

Nothing in the narrative of The Last of Us is going to blow your mind. It’s way more predictable and straight forward than even I would have imagined. What makes it a worthwhile experience is the characters and how the game deals with the circumstantial qualities that morality can take on. Sometimes in life, no one is the bad guy, but everyone is somehow wrong. Society is complicit in it’s own happiness, or misery. It all comes down on us, and how we choose to act during calamity. It’s territory that isn’t threaded on too often in the video game medium, and it’s most welcome to me. Sure, I want my games to be fun mechanically, but if I can get a little something deeper out of it then great. Another game that came out with in the past few years, that deals in some of the same “moral” territory is Spec Ops: The Line, and if you were a fan of how this game deals with that stuff, I would recommend giving that one a go. It’s not the greatest game mechanically, but it’s narrative is well worth your time.

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I'm starting this blog in an effort to become a better writer, and thinker.

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