PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


"We're shitty people, Joel."

We demand much from the world while rarely giving anything back. We steal from homes, we kill civilians, we decimate entire towns, and we break economies. We're gamers.

The most common criticism of the Uncharted games is the dichotomy between the tone of combat and the tone of the cut scenes. In combat, Drake is a killing machine, able to wipe out hundreds of lives with a smirk and smile, and the cut scenes never acknowledge this penchant for mass violence. Such a dichotomy was dubbed “ludonarrative dissonance” in a blog post by Clint Hocking.

On one hand, we can argue that Drake was fighting in self defense since the bad guys usually do shoot first, but on other hand, he does kill so many people. Either way, the criticism went unanswered by Naughty Dog, as each Uncharted fell into the tonal trap. However, The Last of Us feels like a direct response to that criticism because unlike Drake, Joel represents the perfect synthesis of gameplay and character.

Joel is a killer. We spend a good chunk of the game, as Joel, killing people. Drake is a killer too, but what makes Joel’s violence special is that it bleeds into the cut scenes as well. This is established very early on when he breaks a man’s arm before Tess shoots him in the head. The pair of mercenaries torture and execute the guy like the villains of any other game. Tess even spells it out at one point, shouting: “We’re shitty people, Joel!”

Which is all to say that Joel is right at home in a violent video game.

Joel, as a character, is the inevitable consequence of trying to make a character fit naturally within the world of a big-budget AAA blockbuster game. He’s a realistic depiction of the kind of person who would commit the level of violence that we regularly see in games. He’s the quintessential gaming hero -- a sympathetic psychopath -- and a perfect distillation and characterization of our gaming habits.

Joel treats his world like we treat our gaming worlds. He’s a mirror, reflecting our worst gamer tendencies back at us. He’s selfish, agreeing only to escort Ellie because he hopes to get some guns out of the deal, and after he comes to love Ellie, he chooses to save her over saving the world. Almost every choice he makes is made in his self interest.

As gamers, we’re just as selfish, if not more so, in relation to our virtual worlds. After all, these worlds are literally made for us, so why shouldn’t we expect them to bend to us? We demand much from the world while rarely giving anything back. We steal from homes, we kill civilians, we decimate entire towns, we break economies, and we manipulate the world and others characters through ludic systems in order to establish relationships that are the most beneficial to us. When we game the systems to choose who lives and who dies in any game, we’re doing the same thing that Joel does when he decides to save Ellie instead of the world.

It’s a cruel choice, damning the world for his personal happiness, but I agree with the choice. If the game had actually given me a choice at that moment, I probably would have made the same one. Ellie’s a great character, and the world doesn’t really seem worth saving.

Joel is as detached from his world as we are from the game world. This is what allows him to be so violent. He doesn’t dwell on his actions. He just does what he has to do to survive and then moves on. In essence, he’s fighting and killing just to get to the next cut scene.

It’s easy to see myself as the hero in most games, despite playing as an assassin, an outlaw, a mercenary, a crime lord, a demigod, a psycho soldier, and more. I could justify this perception because the games never commented on my violent behavior. My actions didn’t define the character. My actions didn’t even really impact the character. But they do in The Last of Us. Joel is just the kind of person who would crush your skull with a rusty pipe, and I’m reminded of that every time that I crush a person’s skull with a rusty pipe in the game. There is no ludonarraive dissonance when playing as Joel. In fact, it’s very much the opposite. His character is uncomfortably resonant. Naughty Dog has given us what we wanted, and as it turns out, we’re shitty people.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.