“I love order. It’s my dream. A world where all would be silent and still, and each thing in its last place, under the last dust.”
–Samuel Beckett, Endgame
[Spoilers for The Last of Us ahead, y’all]
Since its release, The Last of Us has served as the catalyst for a great deal of discussion from prominent writers in the community about certain aspects of the game, particularly with a focus on the game ‘s apocalypse scenario and how it handles gender roles. Cameron Kunzleman wrote about how his experience with The Last of Us generated “something like apocalypse fatigue ” while Leigh Alexander conveyed half-praise of the work in her succinct summary of her experience: “This is probably the last story of the strong man at the end of the world that I need to play. It’s probably the last one that ought to be made, too. This is likely the pinnacle of that particular form.” The most engaging discussion I’ve seen related to The Last of Us has been Edge‘s Jason Killingworth’s praise of Naughty Dog’s treatment of female characters and the response piece to that article written by Gamespot‘s Carolyn Petit, in which Petit says that “simply presenting women as people is hardly something that should be considered incredibly praiseworthy. Rather, it’s the bare minimum that we should expect from our narratives. To shower a game with praise for doing the minimum is to set the bar extremely low.”
As far as my own impressions of the The Last of Us go, I think it’s good, quite good. I have issues with the game’s immersion-breaking sequences and repetitious puzzle sections, but The Last of Us pulls off some impressive feats. One of game’s notable accomplishments is taking horror film clichés and making them stand out in an oversaturated genre. If you’ve seen enough zombie movies, you can predict nearly every beat of the story right before each one happens. For example, any survivor that our two protagonists come across is likely to die relatively soon after their introduction(s) because they’re expendable. Survival of the fittest reigns supreme and crushes almost any occasion for kindness or mercy beneath its boot heel, as bandits and infected monstrosities roam cities, highways, and even forests. TLOU never completely escapes the conventions of its genre, but the way it spins those clichés make it stand out — and a make the genre worth exploring.
The infection that turns people into—let’s just call them what they are—zombies was not, by all appearances, created in a lab or some form of divine punishment. Instead, Naughty Dog opts for a halfway point between those two explanations, introducing a human version of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis—cordyceps, for short. Cordyceps is a parasitic fungus that infects ants and turns them in “zombies” by altering their behavior to benefit the fungus. In The Last of Us, the fungus infects humans via spores and transmits the infection through biting, as well. The post-apocalyptic virus is a weapon wielded, not by humankind, but by nature—poetic justice for centuries of eco abuse.
The world glimpsed in the game is not a brown, irradiated wasteland or one where humanity is forced to make a last stand in subway tunnels. It’s a green world teeming with flora and wildlife. Just like how a body fights disease with white blood cells, perhaps the earth has finally found a way to rid itself of the most dangerous threat to its existence: people. This scenario is, to me, far more interesting than those involving our species’ own incompetence trying to play God. In TLOU, humans are being told by the same entity that’s nurtured them for their entire existence that they are no longer wanted or needed; they will be hunted to extinction. It’s a frightening, deadly turn that results in what I think the game does best: instilling fear and uneasiness in the player by making absence of humanity such a prominent theme throughout the story.
The title itself points to that absence and serves a foreshadowing of all the empty houses that you’ll find, the deserted streets and cars. The runners and—yes, oh god yes—clickers are scary enough, sure, but they can’t hold a candle to the disquietude I experience when I explore a child’s dusty bedroom and see the bed unmade, the dirty clothes strewn across the floor, everything covered in dust and pollen. A journal on a nightstand reveals that the room belonged to a teenage boy. The last entry in the journal reveals that his father left to go get supplies, but the boy doubted he’d return. What happened then? Did he go out and search for the old man? Did he find him? Was he bitten? Did he have his head beaten in by a bandit? Was he one of those things that you shot in face not even an hour ago? Uneasy questions that go unanswered.
The lack of people in the game’s world and the prominence of the things they’ve left behind prods the player to confront not only the probability of Joel and Ellie’s annihilation but the complete and total end of humanity itself. Other games may poke at that notion, but the majority of them, like Left 4 Dead 2 with its desperate graffiti messages, ultimately treat these absences as decoration for their respective settings. In L4D2, the player’s/the team’s survival is key. Joel and Ellie, on the other hand, carry the last vestige of hope for all humanity, a burden that the player is reminded of constantly thanks to the emptiness that surrounds them at every leg of the their journey.
The section that best illustrates the horrific effects of this absence is Bill’s Town. Bill’s Town is relatively early in the game; Joel and Ellie, after having escaped the fresh hell that is Boston’s quarantine zone, need a car to begin their journey across the country. Joel knows a man named Bill who lives in Lincoln, a nearby in a town; he might be able to get them a car. The pair soon finds out that in order to reach Bill they’ll have to make their way through a town filled with clickers and traps (e.g., a tripwire tied to an explosive filled with nails and broken glass). In essence, Bill’s Town is a modified version of Half-Life 2’s Ravenholm that focuses on delivering a more somber experience than the physics-based amusement park offers.
That’s not to put down Ravenholm. It’s good for what it is: a collection of apartments and streets filled with monsters for the player to experience the same way someone at a carnival experiences a haunted house. It functions as a tech demo more than anything else, requiring the player to use the gravity gun to simultaneously fight baddies and solve puzzles, and avoid traps. They are also aided by the mysterious, and probably bonkers, Father Grigori, a priest who oversees his “flock” (the residents of the town who have since turned into zombies). From the rooftops of the apartments, he screams biblical phrases while lighting monsters on fire with traps. He’s a walking post-apocalyptic stereotype: a mentally unstable man who believes he’s doing God’s work. Grigori’s presence completes the level’s goofy horror tribute feel, and it’s hard not to grin when he puts down a zombie inching toward you and then laughs manically about it.
To put it plainly, Ravenholm is a hoot, especially for horror fanatics. But it’s never truly terrifying because it doesn’t ever feel like a place where people lived. Part of that stems from the bare, Orwellian style apartments that all look the same — an effect that was probably intentional — but the other part is its house of horrors design. Fast, cheap, campy, reliable scares. All that Ravenholm is missing is a ticket booth. But is this campy depiction even a problem, really?
For a game from 2004, certainly not. My intention isn’t to point out any possible flaws within Ravenholm’s design or to argue that Bill’s Town is better because it’s, like, heavier. Instead, I find the comparison rewarding to examine because both sections share the same fundamental elements — a town filled with traps lorded over by an unhinged man — and yet are vastly different in execution and tone. Ravenholm is a portrait of what the majority of players wanted in 2004, next-gen technology in the form of physics and a graphical upgrade, while nine years later, Bill’s Town attempts to satiate a different need by tethering the player to the story emotionally.
Bill, TLOU‘s version of Father Grigori, is also a stereotype (the guy who’s survived the apocalypse thus far by looking out for numero uno but at the cost of his rapidly declining sanity and, perhaps, his soul). However, Bill’s character manages to accomplish something that Grigori’s doesn’t: he offers an early, powerful glimpse into the kind of place the world has become. Bill, despite being a survivor, is a rather pathetic character. By the time we meet him, he’s incapable of trusting anyone besides himself and mumbles entire conversations to himself. His decline is understandable, though. Who wouldn’t go crazy after years of creating systems and routines that must be maintained in order to ensure one’s survival? Who wouldn’t sacrifice their humanity to survive?
Here’s the thing, though: during the brief time we spend with Bill, signs of his humanity shine through. His first act, after all, is saving Joel and Ellie from certain death when he could have easily let them meet their demises. And the concept of “owing someone a favor” relates to honor, something that’s obviously a scarcity after the fall of civilization. We don’t know what Bill did to end up in Joel’s debt, but something about it, whether the act in itself was significant or Bill just doesn’t like owing anyone anything, means that there’s enough humanity there to acknowledge and repay a debt. There’s also his gradual warming toward Ellie. The two start out at each other’s throats after he handcuffs her and then they spend the rest of the level exchanging verbal, foul-mouthed volleys. However, there’s one section where Joel lifts Ellie onto a school bus and Bill clearly says, without any sarcasm or nastiness, “don’t get yourself killed.” For a moment, he stops worrying and complaining about the peril Joel’s putting him in and is legitimately concerned about her safety.
Despite all his harsh words and years of mental and emotional erosion, humanity is not completely absent within Bill; it’s just shut up. The strongest example of his dormant emotions is when he and Joel, in the middle of an argument, spot a corpse hanging from the ceiling of a house. Bill reveals that he knows the corpse, Frank, and that the man was his partner. He’s shaken for a moment but, after turning away, gives into the methodical survival systems he’s created for himself, pointing out the bite marks on Frank’s corpse in order avoid acknowledging that the corpse was not only someone he knew, but someone close to him.
Ultimately, it is this system that wins out in the end. Once Joel and Ellie have a functioning truck, they drop Bill off near his bar. Bill hands him a gas siphon for them to use on the road. When Joel, a man who’s also lost loved ones, reaches out to express his condolences, Bill retreats into himself just like he retreats into his sanctuary a moment later:
Bill: “We square?”
Joel: “We’re square.”
Bill: “Then get the fuck out of my town.”
And that’s last we see of Bill, a chapter in a story that would also serve well as its own short story. Just as both Grigori and Bill share the same purpose (shepherding you through a hazardous area), they also have a mechanically similar ending: the shepherd’s duty done, he departs from his flock. Grigori initiates a standoff with zombies in a graveyard so that the player may escape. The priest then sets off some explosive barrels and disappears into an alcove where he is followed by a pack of zombies. Many players assume that he’s dead while others hold out hope that the fan favorite is still alive, keeping a watchful eye over Ravenholm.
Bill’s fate is less ambiguous. He will die, eventually. First, the last bit of spirit will leave him, and he’ll become nothing more than a servant to the very routines he created to serve him: they will become his reason for living, not things designed to keep himself alive. And then, of course, he’ll physically die. Maybe he’ll get bitten or fall victim to a horde of bandits that come across his town. Perhaps it ends with a lot of whiskey and tears and a shotgun barrel in the mouth. Regardless, Bill will become an absence himself and, like all the others, leave behind evidence that someone once lived there.
In Half-Life 2, Grigori’s stand-off and departure serve as nothing more than a quick transition to the next chapter. The scene isn’t meant to be mulled over as you play through the rest of the game. However, Bill’s story never left me for the rest of The Last of Us. Several times I would come across a deserted house and be reminded of the man’s choice, the decision to close out humanity entirely, to forgo love and trust so that he might survive for a couple of years longer.
Presumably, Joel and Ellie, after spending so much time together, decide that it’s better to depend on on another, even if it means lowering the possibility of their survival so that their emotional needs are met. And then, of course, The Last of Us reveals its trump card by putting Joel in a situation where he must decide whether or not sacrificing that emotional dependency (Ellie herself) is worth the possibility of saving humanity. In that instance, TLOU violently cleaves the player from Joel. Joel makes his decision, the selfish motive of which echoes Bill’s self-imposed exile, and decides that his needs outweigh the needs of humanity as a whole. In other words, Joel could not deal with the absence of Ellie and (subconsciously) decides that the absence of humankind is easier to bear. And, if one digs deep enough, they may find some empathy for Joel. Is it better to save the one human that you have grown to care for, perhaps against your own will, or to sacrifice them for a legion of people that you don’t even know? Are those people worth the cost?
Naughty Dog takes two seemingly noble scenarios (1. Save the World; 2. Don’t Leave a Friend Behind) and plays them against each other in a way that reveals that both options are very, very far from noble. Saving the World means carving up a girl’s brain without her permission while the other option, the one Joel picks, involves butchering an untold number of people in a hospital…and possibly letting his own species die out.
There still remains a nauseating sense of relief in the ending of the game. Joel has “rescued” Ellie. These two characters that we’ve watched reluctantly grow close together are alive and about to make a life for themselves in the community set up by Joel’s brother, Tommy, and his wife. Joel has done horrible things and then covers those up those actions with a lie, a lie so hollow that Ellie knows instantly how pathetic it is, and yet she plays along because she needs him as well. And perhaps there’s some part of us that does want her to play along even though that desire doesn’t make sense in the long term. The opening of Beckett’s Endgame came to mind as I watched the credits for the second time:
“Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must nearly be finished.”
For the majority of the game, there’s an absence of civility, empathy, and, for the most part, love. But the game’s final moments flip the table: Joel trades away any semblance of logic or survival instinct for a terrible, fatherly love that damns humanity. In the context of the ending, love is not the answer; it is the herald of the inevitable absence of all human beings. Our characters, though they are safe for the moment, live in a world where hope is absent. Their terrible, noble love for one another has extinguished the last light. It’s not necessary for TLOU to drag on past Ellie’s final, species-damning “okay,” because we know what lies ahead. The queen and rook pursue the lone king to the edge of the board, row by row by row, and it’s only a matter of time.