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.