The playwright, Jean Cocteau, said, “Emotion resulting from a work of art is only of value when it is not obtained by sentimental blackmail.” The Last of Us is an example of such a crime.
This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us.
The developers at Naughty Dog are master craftsmen when it comes to their art. The studio knows how to construct a game and pace it within the interactive environment to great effect like few other studios can. The Last of Us is their latest effort, and like the Uncharted series before it, it shows an incredible attention to detail and character. But The Last of Us offers little beyond exemplifying its own exceptional craft and structure. I was playing through the game and was thoroughly engrossed by Joel and Ellie’s narrative. Yet the whole time I had a little niggling feeling at the back of my mind that I could not explain.
Then I finished the game and after a satisfyingly dramatic ending (and really it couldn’t have ended any other way), I reflected on the game and could only ask one question. What was the point of all that?
For all the hyperbolic rhetoric that I’ve seen on the game’s release I was expecting The Last of Us to feature material deep enough to match the praise it was getting. In essence, The Last of Us fails to present anything deeper than a well told, tragic story. Everything in the game, every action, every design choice exists to facilitate an emotional resonance between the player and the game's characters and events and nothing else. In short, The Last of Us is solely a work of emotional manipulation.
Characters are set up and moved around like pawns to ensure the most tragic and powerful set of events possible without any consideration to what those events could or might mean. It’s one of those pieces whose purpose is to hit all the right beats for the maximum effect on its audience, but it is otherwise devoid of meaning or purpose. Things happen and characters make choices throughout the game, not because it facilitates a theme or idea that Naughty Dog wants to convey but because it is the most affecting thing that could happen at that moment.
Now to a degree all art is an exercise in emotional manipulation. That’s what it’s there for, to engender experiences and feelings in its audience without having them live through them. It provides vicarious emotional engagement. All art is about guiding the audience to and through emotions. Stories are simulacra that provide stimuli for their audience. Stories (and by extension art) are meant to provide structure and insight by manipulating an audiences mental and emotional faculties. That same ability to stimulate emotions, though, also needs to provide an end goal by imparting some understanding or truth about the world. A problem arises when a work isn’t fully capable of doing so and stops short of doing so. As French poet, novelist, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau put it, “Emotion resulting from a work of art is only of value when it is not obtained by sentimental blackmail.” The sentiment holds true for tragic circumstances just as much as it does for romantic ones.
Works of emotional manipulation want to provide drama without having to worry about things like meaning or truth. They are works of structure and craft rather than one of ideas and form. They know when to hit their audience in the gut, when and how far to push for maximum effect, when to pull back and how to release the tension, and to pause just the right amount before shocking the crowd. Emotional manipulators can make you laugh, cry, and cheer from one story beat to the next, but they hope you never dig an inch deeper than the moment to moment drama of the experiences that they provide or their illusion will fall apart. And The Last of Us lives from moment to moment.
For instance, here is a scenario that comes up all the time throughout the game. Joel is hunched down in hiding. Peering around a corner, he sees a man with a machine gun searching. You know, of course, that he’s searching for you. Joel has caused him and his people a lot of problems and killed a lot of his associates. But it is kill or be killed. "It’s him or me," as Joel tells Ellie in Pittsburgh. There’s no way around the situation. You push forward, still crouched down. You tentatively take one step after another. Finally, he’s within range, his back still to you. Joel attacks, puts his arm around the man’s neck, and slowly squeezes. He spits and gargles as his last breath leaves him in a few tense, stomach-turning seconds. The man with the machine gun is now lying at your feet. It was him or me. The kill was justified. Then you bring the camera around and see the man's partner watching from behind a column. You stay crouched and begin to make your way over to him. It’s him or me.
This situation will be repeated hundreds of times throughout the game. Maybe you wont be sneaking. Maybe you’ll be in a shootout arming yourself with your last two shotgun shells, a Molotov cocktail in reserve if there is a group of them. Maybe you aren’t playing Joel and are playing as Ellie instead. Maybe it isn’t a soldier or a hunter or a cannibal but one of the infected. The moment-to-moment narrative is the same. You stalk, you kill, and it is justified. Each kill is always justified and always ends in the same way.
It has become passé to say that video game characters slaughter hundred of dudes as a matter of course. They are all mass murderers in this style of game. It’s expected within the medium, and we dismiss it as a quirk of video games. It has become expected, and from a top down perspective, something that can be and often is ignored. You know Joel kills hundreds of people and that that just doesn’t happen realistically, but your brain doesn’t concern itself with the irrationality of the circumstances. There is a difference when you look at it from top down as opposed from bottom up that is minutely illustrated above.
Each kill is justified, each violent encounter is justified, but each encounter doesn’t reflect upon previous encounters. Each one begins the same narrative afresh. Your brain is compartmentalizing each combat encounter so that they have no direct relationship to each other. Again, this is true for all combat based video games, but it is a parallel to the narrative content in The Last of Us. Each narrative beat only has a direct effect on the one preceding it and the one following it, and the overall plot, likewise, moves from point to point. Each beat has no relevance beyond the thin narrative thread being followed. It doesn't help that The Last of Us is a series of vignettes. Each section is further compartmentalized as elements that aren’t needed are dropped.
The Last of Us gets compared to The Road quite a lot, and in many ways, it is similar. I don’t quite feel comfortable with that comparison because The Last of Us provides something that The Road does not and is worse off for it. It has an overall story arc. A majority of the game features Joel and Ellie traipsing across America in search of the Fireflies so that they can cure a fungus that is the source of the zombie menace in the game in order to save humanity. Along the way, the game presents the player with a number of vignettes compartmentalized by season and again by city. The Road, likewise, is a series of vignettes, but there is no overall story arc. The man and the boy are headed to the sea, but for little reason other than that they need a destination. The book becomes a portrait of the end of the world and a reflection of humanity in that context. The Last of Us tries to comment on the same thing but is undermined by its quest-like story arc. Suddenly, the relationship between father and child isn’t about being the last hope for a doomed race and the argument for our better nature but is being used as a standard plot device to save the world.
But this could have worked. The sections of the journey could have made the argument for and against Joel’s final choice of whether to save the world or let Ellie die on the operating table, leading to when we might get to see Naughty Dog’s interpretation of the dilemma. And while, yes, everything that happens in The Last of Us makes sense within its world that isn’t good enough.
A common defense of artistic choices in a work, video games in particular, is that when something makes sense in that fictional universe it is okay. Two years ago Kirk Hamilton over at Kotaku brought up that it was a little odd that all of these thugs in Batman: Arkham City were constantly hurling the word “bitch” at the player. Defenders shot back that it makes sense for criminals and thugs to use the word especially against their enemies in a fight. Does it make sense for a criminal and thug to use “bitch” as an insult? Yes. Does said criminal have to use it in a fictional world where every element has to specifically be chosen for inclusion by a real living breathing person towards some, hopefully, meaningful end?
A litmus test of verisimilitude is not cause for an element to be included. Everything in a work of art is a decision by someone instrumental in its creation. There needs to be an artistic direction to guide what can happen in the final product based on what could happen within its own context. That direction has to cut out everything that does not need to be experienced by the player to get the game’s point across.
What do these particular sections spent exploring throughout the game tell us thematically? They tell us the world is screwed. That’s pretty much it. Bill's section gets the most development, and we know that he will become an automaton living for the sake of continuing to live alone in his own town. We see him come to terms with what happened to his partner, and the eventual fate that he’s chose for himself. This moment has emotional resonance and is enough to make the player feel for his plight, but ultimately it is about Bill and Bill alone. It is about what he as a character would do in that situation. The fascist state in Pittsburgh is a crowd of violent survivalists that possess military grade weapons, and we know nothing else about them. Survival is their only given reason for acting the way that they do. There is no commentary about fascist states or humans giving up their freedom for security. Instead, they are the way they are because they are the enemy.
That could be said of every section. The main conflict of the game is surviving all the people you come across that want to kill you. They want to kill you because they are the other, because they are the enemy. They exist so that Joel has someone to fight, someone that he’s allowed to kill. The Last of Us is driven by the need to constantly have someone to kill. In gaming, we instinctually empathize (or at least associate ourselves) with the character that we control. There are some exceptions when the idea and purpose in a game is to distance the player from the actions of the character that they control a la Spec Ops: The Line or Hotline Miami. The Last of Us does not engender such a dichotomous position and insists that we empathize with Joel through his relationships to other characters. In this vein, to facilitate the combat, the game has to provide enemies worse than Joel. Joel is a bad guy. He admits to pulling off the same ambush as the one at the beginning of Pittsburgh. It has become a part of his nature. In any other story, he would be the villain, a sociopathic killing machine that murders, maims, and tortures to suit his needs. However, by presenting enemies that are worse and distanced from us, we can stay empathetic with him throughout the combat in the game.
The need becomes ridiculous at the end of the Pittsburgh segment of the game when the fascist survivalist actually follows Joel out into the suberbs for revenge. They have come into infected territory for the sole sake of revenge against a person who has already escaped and likely isn’t coming back. For a group that wants to survive at all costs, they throw that idea away very quickly because Joel needs a climactic end to the summer section of the game. They even brought their tank. The tank that was built up as something unassailable that we, of course, take down. The moment provides a cathartic release right before The Last of Us ratchets everything back up through the appearance of a horde of infected descending on you.
Then there’s Tommy’s home at the hydroelectric dam. After an extended sequence of calm walking and talking, raiders attack and somehow have scaled the walls, passed the guards, entered the complex, crossed the bridge, and made their way to the generator room just as the alarm sounds. This firefight has no purpose in the plot other than to provide cannon fodder during a gunplay segment. And as underdeveloped as the Pittsburgh men were, these raiders take the cake. Who are they? Raiders. They hide in shacks in the woods and attack the functioning town instead of assimilating into it because they are the other. Then the game allows them to somehow scale the walls, pass the guards, enter the facility, and make their way to the turbine room all so the player can have a shootout behind chest high walls.
However, going from a long calm sequence of walking and talking to a similarly paced sequence of tracking footprints on horseback wouldn’t have provided the ideal pacing for action game. The game needs to break up interesting moments of relative calm with a shootout so that it doesn't drag on too long. This is The Last of Us’s game design at its most cynical. It understands the ideal template for this type of game’s pacing and would rather follow it than trust the work to slightly deviate from it.
Then comes the cannibalism. I spent some of the best designed sequences in the game -- the deer hunting, Ellie’s escape, Ellie stalking men twice her size through the snow, and the showdown in the restaurant -- shaking my head through most of them. The enemies drive most of the action throughout most of the sections of the game, and they are only there for their shock value, showing, for example, that the world is screwed because we have fallen to eating our fellow man. But this has already been demonstrated very adequately in every other part of the game. What does literal cannibalism add to that understanding that wasn’t already well established by the metaphorical cannibalism practiced by every other group in the game?
The winter section is ultimately a missed opportunity. By having us play as Ellie, we get to see her as a developing killer, not quite as proficient as Joel is. Her abilities aren’t upgradeable, and she is at a disadvantage against her larger foes. However, we see her in the middle of her development acting upon what she learned with her time with Joel. We also get to see Joel torture a man to find out where they’ve taken her. We see the fruits of a developing relationship over the entire trip, though. Naughty Dog push Joel and Ellie’s relationship as a focal point of the game. It is so much the focal point of The Last of Us that every other character is killed or sidelined throughout.
Barely any of this new information is allowed to sink in before the next vignette is introduced. It comes fast, as the story railroads the characters into the right position for the next leg of the journey. In effect, the game cheats by killing a character twice in the span of a few minutes, wringing the maximum amount of emotional heartbreak from these events that it can. Tess is already dead and is telling Joel to go on without her when the military show up. This moment evokes an easy shock, and then, the dynamics of the situation have suddenly changed. Tess is allowed to go out by sacrificing herself, and her "second death" serves to justifies the next few shootout sequences in the process.
In another sequence, the characters Henry and Sam are killed before we are allowed to leave Pittsburgh for no discernable reason. Again, the game reveals Sam to be bitten after a miraculous escape from the zombies, and the next morning he is put down by his older brother Henry, who then commits suicide. This is a shocking moment, but what is its point, other than to get Joel and Ellie alone once again? In another moment of this sort, Joel even kills a woman named Marlene, saying that it is because he doesn’t want her following he and Ellie. Right up to the end, the game wants to maximize their time together and minimize it with everyone else.
Events don’t connect outside of their moment-to-moment relevance. The segmented travelogue structure of the game hides this. The yearlong timeframe that the game takes place in allows for their relationship to grow in a reasonable and realistic manner, but it also causes the player to see the separation of the different episodes from one another. Each of these episodes have their own mini-story-arc with its own beginning, middle and end. But the disjointed nature of the various episodes leaves the greater arc lacking in meaning. A central theme cannot be established as each segment of the game focuses on its own underdeveloped ideas.
The most sickening moment of emotional manipulation is at the end of the fight with David. Ellie is hitting the man with a machete when Joel finally shows up. He stops her and is there to try and pick up the pieces. It is a recognizable moment in this kind of story and makes for good drama. Ellie is deeply disturbed by her actions, a sense that does not go away by the next season. The emotional consequences of this event carries into the next segment of the larger story. However, then giraffes show up, and the two share a life affirming moment and dealing with the issues of the incident in the lodge is resolved.
Joel gets to be the comforting father figure and protector, and Ellie gets to be the traumatized victim. But what did such a big scene ultimately mean? Ellie has killed a lot of people at this point. Joel has shown his fatherly instincts before. Why was this particular act of violence any different from all the others that she’s experienced and perpetrated up to this point? Ultimately, the scene serves the purpose of putting on display the damage that violence has caused to the teenager’s psyche, but it never develops that idea any further because it Is really only a callous emotional manipulation meant to drive our sympathy following an extended sequence of brutality and hatred.
The relationship of Joel and Ellie attaches the player to the characters, so that the truly horrible, psychologically damaging things to come can provoke more emotional responses in the player. The Road also focuses on the relationship between the man and the boy, a father and a son. The Last of Us could have followed The Road’s example and said something about such relationships in terrible situations in the process of merely provoking sentiment in us.
However, The Last of Us only superficially approaches ideas raised in The Road and it doesn’t work, and for the same reason, I hope The Last of Us doesn’t get a sequel. The quest to save the world overshadows the human drama. Once the focus of an apocalyptic story is about how to fix or reverse the apocalypse, any other story just doesn’t seem as relevant. Any and all other stories are dwarfed, including Joel and Ellie’s relationship, which unfortunately is where all of the effort was put in the storytelling.
Naughty Dog weaves these two aspects into one another, with Joel’s desire for Ellie to live superseding the world’s need to survive or when they present Ellie’s own desire to give her life for a cure. But these motivations don't clarify a theme or a greater artistic purpose. They exist for the sake of drama alone -- very well executed drama, but hollow drama, nonetheless. Joel finally chooses Ellie's survival over that of the world. What could be the most emotionally affecting thing we could do after the characters succeed in their quest to save the world? Why we could throw all their effort out the window and doom all humanity, of course.
Looking back, it seems most of what happens with regard to the execution of certain elements in the plot is for the sake of drama rather than for the sake of meaning. Drama and meaning can exist in the same story, but there doesn’t seem to be any meaning connected to the major elements put on display in this story -- in the relationship between Joel and Ellie or in their concerns in saving the world. Things happen because that’s what happens in an apocalypse. The game isn’t making any statements about apocalypses or the nature of man shown through an apocalypse. These are things that just happen because that’s what happens in an apocalypse. The plot says so.
By contrast, The Road presents a discussion about the fundamental nature of man. The world is a horrible doomed place, but the man and boy are the shining example of humanity’s goodness, and it ends on a note of hope, a hope that goodness can overcome such horrors.The difference between these two works is a drama that happens for the sake of combining conflicting elements to see what happens and one in which combing such conflicting ideas along with the drama allows an idea to emerge in the story.
Naughty Dog has proven themselves as masters of manipulating emotions, but not so much at handling complex story. The Uncharted games are essentially light affairs that allow you to participate in a swashbuckling adventure tale. The meaning of each is pretty shallow, but it does exist. Plus, the demands on the story aren’t as strenuous thanks to the roller coaster nature of the game’s dramatic pacing, which fits the very concept of a swashbuckling adventure tale. The Last of Us has a lot of skill and craft behind the execution of its drama and how it tugs at heartstrings, but if you look a little deeper, you find there is no point, despite the fact that the game's presentation and content practically demands it. Ultimately, the game thinks that it has a smarter premise than it can actually ever hope to deliver on.
I am disappointed in Naughty Dog for creating a work of emotional manipulation instead of one with actual meat on its bones. It is better than games that are all skin, but it feels like more of a let down than if it had been all flash and no suggestion of substance at all.