How ‘The Last of Us’ made me appreciate storytelling in cinema

Posted: September 1, 2013 in Movies, Video Games

This blog is primarily centered around film and television with the occasional music or video game reference thrown in, however, I must deviate from the norm and write a little bit about a video game I just finished: The Last of Us.

The Last of Us is a video game for the PlayStation 3 console and tells the story of a pandemic outbreak that wipes out modern civilization as we know it turning those infected into mindless monsters.   The story centers around Joel, a smuggler who was once your everyday man’s man, and his journey nearly two decades after the outbreak – escorting a teenage girl with the key to saving humanity halfway across the country.   That girl, Ellie – and her secret, are a burden to Joel.  This is just a “job” to him.  He has no vested interest in Ellie and who she is or where she’s come from.  The game, right from the start, throws the hot and heavy at you and will test your emotional level.  We quickly come to understand why Joel is the way he is and why he has zero interest in being buddy buddy with Ellie.  Joel was once a family man, but those days are long gone.  Now it’s all about survival and as the game puts it “finding things to fight for”.

Joel and Ellie’s relationship grows over the course of the game as the two are forced to bond together through the countless days they spend together.  Joel begins to open up to Ellie about his past, what happened to mankind (as Ellie was born after the outbreak), and he even offers to teach her how to play the guitar when everything’s said and done.   Joel’s evolution as a character is the stuff great stories are made of.  His evolution as a video game character is the type of evolution you can only imagine in the greatest of films.  I’m in no way comparing a video game to a cinematic masterpiece, but if you put a gun to my head The Last of Us would probably be the only game I could list as to even coming close.

Joel’s relationship with Ellie quickly gets him into hot water as he begins to make rash judgments and you find yourself scratching your head wondering why he chose to do things he did.  I’m trying my best not to make this a video game review but more of an overlapping article on how cinema has affected the way we play games.  Naughty Dog, the studio responsible for The Last of Us, is no stranger to storytelling in games.  They are the studio behind the Uncharted video game franchise, which is Sony’s best selling console franchise of the past 10 years.  However, unlike Uncharted, The Last of Us is ultra-realistic and ultra-harsh.  There are no wise cracks or witty one-liners here, just depression and hope.

Naughty Dog spent so much energy and time developing the characters of Joel and Ellie that through the course of the game you catch the characters mirroring each other.  For instance, Joel gets the two of them out of a sticky situation and when complimented on his tactics he labels it as “just luck” and that his luck “is about to run out”.   Later in the game when Ellie uses a knife to take down a baddie and is complimented on her skills, she labels it as “just luck”.  It’s little nuances like that that make playing a 15 hour cinematic title well worth while.  This isn’t your typical zombie apocalypse video game full of mowing down infected and trying not to get bit.  Instead this is a human study story set to the back drop of a worldwide pandemic.

The closest I can come to comparing The Last of Us to a film is John Hillcoat’s Cormac McCarthy adaptation, The Road.  Much like The Last of Us, The Road is centered around a man and a child fighting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.  However, The Road never tells you what causes the end of the world nor does it even act like that particular point matters.  Instead, Hillcoat’s direction and Joe Penhall’s screenplay allow us to delve into the character’s motivations for survival.  Several times throughout The Road, the story’s main character – played by Viggo Mortensen – carries around a revolver with two bullets in it and whenever they think they are stuck in a bad situation, Mortensen’s character contemplates murder/suicide rather than being killed by bandits or worse.  The Road is about love, dedication, perseverance, and trust.   Even when Mortensen’s character makes bad decisions his son is often there asking questions about why they’re in the situation they’re in.  By the end of the film we’re expecting the worst and hoping for something not as bad.   However, we’re surprised by the open ended uplifting ending.

SPOILERS – IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILED OF THE LAST OF US’ ENDING, TURN AWAY!

Joel and Ellie encounter several groups of people along their journey that have no interest in helping them or want to kill them and eat them.  Yep, the game touches on everything including cannibalism.  Joel’s relationship with Ellie eventually reminds him of the one person he lost when this whole outbreak started and those memories and parallel’s quickly become his motivation for keeping Ellie alive.   His personal selfishness begins to overtake his “job” and mission of getting Ellie to a group of militia personnel that can supposedly cure mankind.  Joel doesn’t want to let Ellie go.  This is seen numerous times throughout the game.  One particular impactful moment of dialogue in the game is when Ellie runs away from Joel and his brother because she doesn’t want Joel to abandon her, the two are reunited some time later in which Ellie states that she’s not Joel’s daughter and Joel quickly retorts, “that’s right!  You’re not my daughter!”  It’s perhaps the most important bit of dialogue in the entire game.  It’s that moment that Joel’s character begins to evolve.  He realizes that he has no one else on this Earth to care for, but maybe that’s beginning to change.  Joel’s change of heart takes the two to numerous different locations; subways, highrise buildings, the countryside, the suburbs, etc.  It’s these locations that we begin to appreciate the game’s beautiful scenery and you might even get caught up forgetting you’re playing a video game but watching a movie instead.   The voice acting by Joel, Ellie, and the rest of the supporting cast is magnificent.

The ending of the game is both heartbreaking and uplifting (The Road!) at the same time.  We learn why Ellie wants to die, why she volunteered to go on this cross-country venture, but we also learn that Joel needs Ellie alive more than the world needs her dead.  Joel doesn’t care about mankind any more.  The world took everything he cared about but he’s not going to let this cruel environment take the one thing he’s come to care about this much for.  Ellie symbolizes Joel’s “something to fight for”, this teenage girl is his fight reincarnate.  And the same goes with Ellie.  Joel gave her something to live for – even if the events of what transpires at the end of the game are a lie.  Ellie needs Joel and Joel needs Ellie.  It’s that simple.

Storytelling in The Last of Us is so spot on I first tried to find things to gripe about, complaining that a game’s story can’t be this good.  Instead of finding things to harp on (and the only things I did find were with gameplay instead of story) I found more reasons to love the story.   If you’re struggling with appreciating good storytelling in films, I implore you to take a gander – even if you’re not a gamer – at The Last of Us.   Trust me, it may be the best story you’ve ever seen unfold on a television screen.

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