Parenting in the Time of Zombies 

I recently finished playing The Last of Us. A writer friend, Mason Thomas, recommended the game to me. Being that we’ve had similar emotional reactions to a number of other games, I suspected I was in for a trip through the “ringer.” I wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t the trip I expected, however. I’ve played a number of BioWare games, so I figured I had the experience of moral ambiguity. Not so much. The Last of Us takes the player on a very different journey and it’s very, very dark.

***I’m not going to give away the ending here, but I will warn you that in my defense of Joel and the decisions he makes throughout his journey, I may step into spoiler territory, so read on at your own risk.***

The game begins with a fungal plague that decimates Earth’s population, turning them into zombies. The player experiences the outbreak as Joel, the main character of the game. He’s a single dad with a daughter who appears to be a preteen or young teenager. You get enough of his personality in the prologue to understand that not only is he a good dad, but his daughter is his world. She is his reason for being—even if he’s not the touchy feely type. His actions speak louder than words, and this is true of Joel’s character throughout the game. What he says isn’t necessarily what he means. What he does? Whole ‘nother matter. This is important when you get to the gritty part of the game—which is pretty much every part.

So let me talk a little about gameplay and the environment for a while. We’ll get back to Joel. Ellie too.

The Last of Us is a gorgeous game, from the load screen to the cinematics and beyond. I wish it was possible to take screenshots on the PS4. (Know a trick? Share it, please!) There were so many scenes I wanted to memorialize. The facial expressions are spot on and the voice acting superb. The music is atmospheric and totally suited to the mood of the game, the story, and Joel’s character in particular.

If you’ve played Uncharted, you’ll be familiar with the mechanics. They’re very similar. For me, this is a good thing as it always takes me a while to figure out the combat in a new game—beginning with where my weapons are stored. The Last of Us features a handy left-right/up-down weapon slot system that you should make your first priority when upgrading your weapons. Add holsters. Trust me, you don’t want Joel to be rooting through his backpack when you run into a nest of Clickers.

Combat has a bit of a learning curve. The neatest aspect of the combat in this game, however, is that a trick rarely works twice. You have to think on your feet and read every situation differently. Also, the mobs are smart. If you make a noise, they will spot you, and if you let yourself get trapped, they will flank you.

For me, the biggest key was using the environment to my advantage. Laying traps and limiting the pathways. Finding blind corners to hide in and luring my enemies to me when I could. Also, if I could sneak by without killing anything, I totally went for that option. This is a post apocalyptic environment and resources are limited. Every bullet counts.

The cut scenes are really nicely integrated here. They’re almost seamless. I even kept pushing buttons through a few of them, unsure whether I was playing the game or the game was playing me. Unlike Uncharted, there is no plunging off the side of a cliff if you’re not pushing the right button at exactly the right time. This environment is a little more forgiving. But there are a couple scenes where you need to be ready for anything.

For all that the game looks nice and plays well, however, the best part is the story. It’s more nuanced than I imagined and very well written. Used to be, when you picked up a game, all you cared about was getting from A to Z and how many headshots you could score along the way. There was always a story and it was always okay, or as okay as it needed to be to string certain events together in a somewhat logical manner.

In the past ten years, story has become more important, to the point where gamers now expect an experience. Trophies are nice, but we want them to have meaning now. We want to laugh and we want to cry. We want to fall in love and have our hearts broken. We want to save the world and for some of us, we’re okay with dying in the attempt.

We want to be heroes.

We want to be antiheroes.

We want to be more than someone sitting on a couch with a console controller in hand, if just for a little while.

Some people think Virtual Reality is the future of gaming. I think it’s already here. When I’m in a game like The Witcher or Fallout or Mass Effect or The Last of Us, I am not here, on this planet. I’m there, in that environment, in that story. Emotionally and mentally, I am wrapped up in an experience that means something to me. I am living the lives of my characters. I don’t need to be able to touch them, or turn around and see the environment wrap around behind me. I’m already doing all of that with my mind and, increasingly, with my heart.

Cast me in a role I think I’m familiar with and the immersion is going to be all the more deep.

How many gamers do you think are parents? I’m going to say at least 50%. And even if they’re not, they’re aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, teachers, and mentors. On some level, we all know what the bond between parent and child should feel like.

At it’s core, The Last of Us is the story of what one man will do for his daughter.

“I struggled for a long time with survivin’, and no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.”
— Joel

Chapter One is set twenty years later and we’re confronted with an older, harder man. Joel is bitter and you immediately get why. You think you understand him. Oh boy. I really thought I had this cynical bastard all figured out. He didn’t want to bond with Ellie, the young girl he was entrusted with. He was going to deliver her to the Fireflies and be done with it. We’ve all read this story before, though, so we all know he’s going to do everything in his power to not only complete the mission—impossible as it sounds—but to make sure Ellie is still alive at the end of it.

What makes this rendition a little different is the lengths both Joel and Ellie will go to in order to not only stay alive, but to stay together. I’d love to detail each quest here and break down the decisions that go into getting through to the end, but I really don’t want to spoil the game for anyone who happens across this post.

Ellie is one tough kid. You expect her to be, but she still managed to surprise and horrify me. I’m a parent. I have a fifteen year old daughter. Ellie is fourteen. Imagining my daughter having to do the things Ellie has to do? Jesus. There’s a reason I think I’ll be one of the first to go if our world ever keels over like this. I’m just not emotionally equipped to deal with this stuff.

I loved Ellie’s character, though. She’s smart and vulnerable. You get the idea she can take care of herself, but she has these cute little animations that keep her believable and kid-like. She hums tunelessly and carries a book of really terrible jokes that she will subject you to at odd moments. By the end of the game, I was ready to lay down my life for her, regardless of what Joel wanted to do.

So, Joel. Oh, man, he’s tough to like, but he’s also hard not to love. He’s so broken—but not. Twenty years later he’s STILL alive and there’s a reason for that. This is a guy who doesn’t know how to give up. Remember that. It’s important. He’s old and tired, but he won’t stop. Ever. He’s ruthless and cynical—not only because that’s what it takes to survive, but because he is a survivor.

One of my favourite aspects of his character would have to be his age. We don’t often get to play folks who are in their late 40s. As a person who just happens to be in her late 40s, this is alone was a real treat. Getting into his head was a little more difficult and I don’t think I really appreciated all that Joel was until the end of the game. Then it hit me with this powerful whack.

Joel will do anything to protect his daughter.

I found myself questioning some of his decisions, but when I reflected on who he was, or who he showed himself to be, I couldn’t really say that any of his actions surprised me. And, to my shame, I couldn’t say I’d have done anything differently. That’s the hard part, folks. When you get to the end of this game you’re going to be confronted with something that doesn’t feel good. But if you examine Joel’s character (regardless of your relationship to him), you’ll understand that this story couldn’t have ended any other way.

This is a broken world and it’s full of broken characters. The question of right and wrong is about as irrelevant as what sort of dressing you’d like on your salad when there’s no lettuce. For some, the ending won’t feel heroic in an epic sense. Go a little deeper, however, and the ending is heroic in an entirely different way.

I’m going to leave you with the scene that broke me. For those who haven’t played the game—spoiler alert, there are giraffes roaming around a certain city. For those who have played the game, this is where the previous scene really caught up to me. This is when I was finally able to pry my hands away from the controller, flop back onto the couch and cry.

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