The Last of Us Gives You Control of a New Kind of Protagonist—and You May Not Like It
SPOILER NOTE: This post contains major plot spoilers for The Last of Us. The post also discusses Grand Theft Auto IV, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and Shadow of the Colossus, but without any specific plot spoilers (just general comparisons of morality in stories).
Troy Baker, the actor who plays Joel in The Last of Us, has been widely quoted on his character’s departure from video game tradition as say, “He’s not a hero, he’s not a badass,” nor “a strong archetypal character. . . . I really think it’s gonna turn the model of the hero on its ass. Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic survival drama makes good on that promise, and in the process teaches us something about what we’ve come to expect from the characters we play in video games. Joel in The Last of Us represents a less-travelled region of morally complicated protagonists. Joel’s decisions are brutal and goal-oriented, and from the beginning, the game denies players any indication that Joel is making them for the “right” reasons (though it doesn’t make this insultingly obvious, either – until the very end, I usually found myself rooting for Joel). This is in stark contrast to most games, where (except in games where the player is given the choice to do good or bad), characters do bad things for reasons we understand to achieve goals we could agree with – it’s the means that are generally disapproved of in video game behavior, not the ends.
Character Set Up & Story:
With Joel, I want to like him, but I realized, especially at the end, that while likeable he is very probably wrong – maybe even “the bad guy” from many perspectives. He initially agrees to escort Ellie not out of concern for her or for a cure for mankind, but out of self-interest (it’s a paying job) and later because it was important to Tess. By the end of the game, he has grown to care about Ellie, and so while the Fireflies are willing to sacrifice her life and her freedom to choose what to do with it for the chance (hardly a guarantee) of being able to develop a cure (having hastily dismissed her research value while alive), Joel also denies Ellie the right to choose her own fate, out of his own selfish desire to not lose her like he did his daughter Sarah (though the true extent of Ellie’s ignorance of the situation is also left ambiguous in the end). Joel has sacrificed the best hope for mankind (and killed probably the best brain surgeon/infection researcher left in America) to secure a happy life for himself and Ellie. And by lying to Ellie and denying her the right to make her own decision, he has also undermined their relationship, whether she ever discovers (or allows herself to admit) it or not.
Whereas most anti-heroes in games do bad things to bad people for relatively good reasons, in The Last of Us, the character we have fought to help succeed ultimately acts against a cure, against Ellie’s freedom to decide what to do with her life, and against honesty. Instead, he chooses family and personal happiness for himself and Ellie. Though the game never really suggested that Joel’s priorities were particularly “good” or moral, this ending still shocked me. This was partly because the game sets you up for a more traditional “zombie” or “post-apocalypse sacrifice” ending where Joel (or, more improbably, Ellie) doesn’t make it, not only through genre conventions but also because it’s a game, so your focus is on keeping them alive, not whether they’ll make good decisions if they do survive.
Having gone through so much to get them there in one piece, I was disturbed to find myself complicit in a morally ambiguous (but decisive) conclusion. Grand Theft Auto IV’s Niko Bellic may be a pretty immoral guy in many ways, but you know this from the beginning, you can avoid killing innocents most of the time, and Niko’s generally on the right moral side of major plot points (depending in part on player choices). Niko is someone that whose problems are obvious and whose journey is more morally acceptable than you might fear or expect. Joel, on the other hand, is someone you want to root for most of the game before realizing that you’ve helped him achieve things you might disagree with, done for reasons you might disagree with.
In this sense, I think The Last of Us represents a true step forward in the complexity and dramatic range of video game narratives. It is not the first good game narrative to make the player complicit in very questionable goals – both Shadow of the Colossus and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West do this well, too (there are many other interesting parallels between The Last of Us and Enslaved as well). The Last of Us exceeds Shadow of the Colossus in narrative development. Shadow’s mostly silent story is atmospheric and morally troubling, but not extensively developed—relative to The Last of Us, the story is a much smaller part of that (great) game. And though Enslaved’s story and acting are very compelling, the gameplay is neither at the same quality level nor as integrated into the story experience as in The Last of Us.
Not all games need complex stories with characters and events that leave us emotionally and morally conflicted – but I’m glad that some big-budget, commercially successful games can. I’m excited to see games explore new kinds of characters, not just simple heroes or anti-heroes willing to do bad things for good reasons, but characters doing a mix of good, bad, ambiguous, and debatable things for good, bad, ambiguous, and debatable reasons. Games like The Last of Us tell important stories that help us think through situations in which the right thing to do isn’t always clear or when different right things (such as family and the general welfare) are opposed to each other and we can’t have both. I care about Joel, but I have mixed emotions about him – I like him and I don’t, I’m glad he reached a place of happiness and I’m furious about how he got there. Troy Baker wasn’t overselling things: Joel is probably the most complex protagonist I’ve seen yet in a video game, and a sure sign that the video games are continuing expand the range of compelling characters and stories they can bring to life.