(some slightly more significant spoilers follow)
I feel like I’m getting close to the end in The Last of Us. Or maybe I’m not, but the characters keep talking about being close to the intended destination. Obviously it could go anywhere from there; I’ve already been sidetracked multiple times in the storyline out of necessity, my destinations becoming distant memories of what could have been if things hadn’t happened they way they had…
That’s it. That’s what this game is about.
What could have been.
While it’s been prodding me generously throughout the entire game, it hit me pretty hard tonight after reaching the entryway of the campus: The Last of Us is about Joel and Ellie working their way through their lives in survival mode, only given moments to look around and explore the parts of their lives that they will never get to experience. We get to walk them through the echoes of what their lives could have been, like some sort of purgatory. It’s haunting.
When I started realizing this, every encounter and every setting made me feel a lot more uncomfortable. As Ellie asked about the movies featured on posters, or we paused to collect supplies near a child’s empty bedroom, or strolled through a family home and found personal effects, or noted a board game sitting out halfway through play, or hid in a burned out coffeehouse, and now as we enter the college campus… it gets rougher. These characters have lost everything, not only their families, but also their ability to enjoy what many consider to be The American Dream, or even the frivolities of life, simple things like playing videogames or having a coffee or picking out an outfit to wear. Even going to work every day, that’s gone for them.
What’s absolutely fascinating is the interplay between Joel and Ellie during all of these scenes. Joel is an older man, has experienced the commonality of those things, probably took them for granted, and raised his family with a set of expectations for their future. Ellie walks around thinking that it must’ve been weird that an ice cream truck drove around playing music and kids came running. She thinks it’s weird that girls sat around and wrote in their diaries about boys. She thinks it’s crazy that she shouldn’t be able to carry her own gun. She thinks Joel is overprotective and isn’t giving her a chance.
In particular, a lot of the locations seem to be happening in a logical sequence for a ghost of the story of someone’s life. I’ve been through family homes, childrens’ rooms, hotels, a high school, museums, subways, coffee houses, and now I’m at a university. I strangely anticipate coming across a bridal shop or a wedding chapel before the game is over. (Actually, come to think of it, I was in a chapel at one point, albeit briefly…) Or maybe something about a graduation ceremony… It’s just so fitting…
Every time I walk into a new place, I think to myself “What is Joel thinking right now? Is he thinking about Ellie never being able to go to college?” and I think about how Ellie probably hasn’t ever thought about it, she just knows how to survive. It’s all a mystery to her, and most of the time she doesn’t even seem that interested in considering living in that world. Joel carries around the burdens of knowing what that world was like, and the burden of wishing it could go back to normal.
It’s fucking amazing. I’m sorry, that’s fucking amazing writing. For a videogame, for a movie, for a book, for anything. And it happens constantly. Joel becomes so heavy with the burden of memory, of potential, that you can almost understand why when you push the “run” button, he really just doesn’t go very fast. He’s so sluggish and critical and uncomfortable with Ellie being so eager on her feet to fight and live in this terrifying landscape.
And that is life, isn’t it? This is an incredible metaphor, like a fantastic coming of age novel. Even beyond the post-apocalyptic landscape.
The acceptance that your children are their own people, that they won’t want what you wanted, that they won’t even understand what you wanted and why you wanted it for them. And you will remember them in their childhood and want them to cherish it, because you now look back on a world that has changed drastically and wish for those better days. Hell, Ellie’s not even his child, but she is a symbol of Hope for the future. Just like our children are for us. And we really can’t do anything but guide them along the way, through our disillusioned, broken memories and shells of our former lives, and protect them from the bad when we can. But we can only do so much, because their will is stronger than our memories we’re hanging onto. They need to grow up, and we’ve stopped. Add Joel’s daughter into the equation and you have constant heartbreak at every turn.
I get it now. I knew the game was going to be good, but I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon right away. But I can tell you now, The Last of Us is a storytelling masterpiece.