Jay Castello
Freelance Writer

Subversion and Powerlessness in The Last of Us

[This post contains spoilers!]

The Last of Us is a game in which you shoot people.

The Last of Us is also a game that is fundamentally different from other games in which you shoot people.

There are small differences throughout the game. Stealth is emphasised, even necessary, thanks to the limited resources and ammunition available to you. Equally you will have to switch often between weapons, most of which are slow to fire such as single shot hunting rifles, bows, or scoped pistols. Because of this and your limited health, it’s not really possible to mow down waves of enemies without being swarmed and dying.

That is, until the last level.

Throughout the game, Joel and fourteen-year-old Ellie cross the States in search of the Fireflies, who may be able to create a cure for the zombie apocalypse using Ellie’s immunity to the outbreak. As in many video games, you’re on a quest to save the world. Specifically, you, as player character Joel, are a grizzled white guy on a quest to save the world. It’s the most stereotypically standard video game plot possible, albeit with a dressing of great characters and slightly different gameplay in order to freshen it up a little.

That is, until the last level.

Throughout the game, Joel reminds Ellie that despite her immunity to the zombie plague, she has to be careful to avoid the multitude of other dangers in the post apocalyptic world that she is vulnerable to, because she could hold the all-important cure. By the second half of the game, there is a clear undercurrent that Joel, despite his best efforts, does not mean “be careful because you have to save the world.” This is what he says, but what he actually means is “be careful, because I love you.” These two things are not mutually exclusive.

That is, until the last level.

Once you, Joel, and Ellie have painstakingly crossed America to find them, the Fireflies take Ellie away in order to reverse engineer a vaccine for the zombies – in order to save the world. But to do this, she has to die. And Joel no longer cares about saving the world; only about saving Ellie.

He storms the hospital where Ellie is being prepped for surgery, pretty much doing away with stealth and quickly picking up an assault rifle and plenty of bullets. The game transforms into something more familiar – a white guy charging headlong in to kill enemies with ease in pursuit of a female character.

But unlike almost every other game, it not once suggests that this is the right thing to do. The player can empathise with Joel; can also have become attached to Ellie in the process of the game, but ultimately he is not shown as a hero. He is shown simply as a man doing the only thing that he feels he can do.

The player is looped into this sense of single mindedness. When you step through the door into the operating room where Ellie is lying unconscious, a surgeon will threaten you with a scalpel. And then nothing will happen. You can’t go back – that door is literally and metaphorically closed. You can’t go forward – not without shooting the surgeon and two nurses who beg you not to.

In most games, you as the player are tasked with saving the world. But it’s not really about the saving the world part, it’s about the you part. The game is almost always built around the player’s experience and the player character’s power and not really around the world that the story is set in. They don’t tend to have well thought out epilogues that allow you to explore the world that you’ve improved. You save the world, so the game ends. You’ve achieved something, and you don’t need to see how that achievement affects others.

The Last of Us takes away the saving the world story at the last minute – but it also takes away the player’s agency. This is no longer about you. This is about Joel. This is about Joel and his inability to make any decision except “save Ellie.”

You shoot the surgeon and the two nurses.

You don’t have a choice; this is no longer a game about you. And yet you have to participate. Regardless of your own morality or empathy, you have to feel the same sense of helplessness as Joel.

It’s this sudden removal of player agency, along with other sudden changes, that makes the whole game work. In most games that aim to subvert the common tropes of their genre, the idea that there should be another choice has difficulty taking root with the player who has not been given any options throughout the game. In The Last of Us, a focus on puzzles and stealth give the player the sense of needing to figure out their next move; in the final scene there is only one move and it’s as obvious as it is stomach turning. Similarly, Ellie who is usually the one to rescue herself and spends a large section of the game saving Joel is reversed into the standard trope of damsel in distress only in this moment of subversion and reflection.

The final level of the game plays as the most standard game imaginable – grizzled white guy with stubble shoots his way through enemy after enemy in order to rescue a female character. But whereas in almost any other game this would be the final moment of ultimate heroism, in The Last of Us it plays as an entirely helpless act. Joel and the player are not heroes; they have damned the world to a continued apocalypse against the wishes of the girl who could have stopped it. Even if you are glad that you’ve saved Ellie, it’s soured by her obvious distrust and disappointment in the closing cutscene. And it hits all the harder when the level’s tropes lead to an expectation of grandeur.

You expect to be able to save the world and Ellie, and you certainly expect video game everyman Joel to do those things. You expect the final level to be a crowning moment of glory. But you can’t; he can’t. And it certainly isn’t. 

Thoughts from The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses

A Note on Greed