The Last of Us

Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, brought together by Dan Parker. Dan is a videogame critic, socialist organizer, and budding literary scholar from Philadelphia, PA. They can be found on Twitter @Dapskier

Since its release in 2013, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us struck a rich vein in videogame culture, not just commercially, but also critically. At a time when games such as Proteus and Gone Home achieved mainstream success, challenging commonsensical and corporate-approved notions of videogame form and design, The Last of Us – a zombie game with an emotionally complex narrative – compelled players to question the limits and the potentialities of the dominant design philosophies of the industry.  

Since 2013, critics have not come to agree about the success of The Last of Us’ ambitions, or even whether “ambitious” correctly describes the game. While many have described The Last of Us as a rousing triumph, signalling the maturation of the medium, others see Naughty Dog’s artistic efforts ensnared by conservative design and representational tropes. Undoubtedly, however, The Last of Us was something of a powder-keg for recurring discussions of hot-button issues for games criticism in 2013 and 2014, including the relationship between gameplay and narrative, gender representation, and videogame violence. And so the game produced a wealth of writing from players and critics, whose wide and diverse character I hope to capture here.

I start this compilation with Leigh Alexander’s review on Gamasutra, a succinct and developed synthesis of the topics and arguments that The Last of Us has incited among the many writers below. She calls the game “excellent” but concludes with something of a back-handed compliment, that the game is “probably the last story of the strong man at the end of the world that [she] need[s] to play […] the pinnacle of that particular form.”

It’s not that it’s reinvented video games, or invented much of anything overt — it’s simply that it takes the things video games are about right now, takes the things that video games seem to have to do, and solves the problems of previous attempts.

The Zombie of AAA Design and Commercial Demands

Naughty Dog set out to make a game of artistic integrity and emotional profundity, a game to move players who are often merely “entertained.” This aim often presents a tall order for the precarious “AAA” videogame industry, which must guarantee exorbitant sales to offset ludicrous production costs. Several writers have contended that The Last of Us bears the marks of this antagonistic tension between artistic ambitions and the demands of capitalism.

Stephen Beirne writes a polemic against AAA design features of The Last of Us, arguing that its “sham” ladder puzzles and simplistic crafting system represent Naughty Dog’s cynical fear of its audience. He sees these additions as shallow, craven attempts to deter player boredom, where the developers could have opted instead for appropriate ludic expressions of emptiness and desolation.

As systems indicating post-apocalyptic survival, their neatness characterizes them as shadow activities. Silhouettes of scavenging, survival, transit, shapes without substance. They’re ghosts of emotions of the things you know you should be doing and feeling in this scenario, but the effort that would justify their inclusion would transform it into a different sort of game, one decidedly not AAA enough.

For Kotaku Australia, Mark Serrels uses Joel’s character and his age as a metaphor for the obsolete design tropes that have dominated the last console generation:

Video games are a product of their time, and the technology of their time. In that sense all video games are allegories. But The Last Of Us is the ultimate game of its type: a video game that renders its own tropes dead or in the slow process of dying.

In a combative diatribe, Ed Smith laments the “downloadable ‘special executions'” added to the game’s multiplayer for 99 cents each for the game’s PS4 re-release. As one of the most egregious examples of what he calls the “commodification of simulated murder,” this expansion-pack compromises the integrity and beauty of the single-player campaign.   

For an alternative, more positive view, Kent Aardse celebrates The Last of Us’ linearity and controlled storytelling. He contends that the game’s complex narrative focus goes against the grain of open-world design that has captured the attention of both the industry and the academic discipline of game studies. Writing several years after Aardse, Astrid B. argues that while The Last of Us is impressively complex, the big-budget paradigm can’t sustain that complexity, and thus fails to examine the troubling power dynamic between Joel and Ellie. She further notes that since the game’s release, the AAA industry neglected to learn from The Last of Us in favor of a paradigm of “open-world bloat.”

Meanwhile on Grantland, Tom Bissell praises The Last of Us as a “model of subtlety” for the medium and for its elaborate attention to detail, before briefly reflecting on the human costs of the game’s achievements: worker suffering in the form of labor exploitation.

I have no doubt that to make this game, hair was grayed, health was ravaged, friendships were tested, and marriages were strained […] What I’m saying is that these glorious games are, in real and measurable ways, born of human misery.

Ludonarrative at the End of the World

Not unrelated to AAA design philosophy, The Last of Us’ structure of clearly delineated segments of combat encounters, environmental exploration, and cutscenes sparked much discussion about the relationship between gameplay and narrative. L. Rhodes takes Tom Bissell’s previously linked review to task for justifying and necessitating what Bissell calls “gameisms”–“little breaks in the logic of a game that players sometimes tolerate because the game might not be so enjoyable without them.” Rhodes argues that inconsistencies such as Ellie’s undetectable AI during combat encounters betrays the game’s integrity:

It sends the message that her vulnerability is a contrivance, one the game is willing to contradict when it conflicts with other goals, and precisely at those moments when it ought to mean the most.

Speaking of gameisms, over at Forbes, Carol Pinchefsky writes about how her attempts to buck the game’s ending sequence spoiled her experience. (I actually made the same attempts as Pinchefsky and can confirm that throwing a brick at the surgeon creates an unintentional moment of extreme and inappropriate bathos.)

Errant Signal’s holistic in-depth analysis looks at the game’s thematic exploration of the social borders individuals and communities create. But he holds that The Last of Us separates gameplay and narrative “like oil and water,” creating a disjointed experience with the most poignant moments reserved for cutscenes.

Resources are scarce, punishments are swift and harsh, you feel a little underpowered, and the gun sway and clunky animation driven nature of melee combat all intentionally convey a sense of tension and of desperation. It’s actually a really cool use of mechanics to build texture in the narrative, but unfortunately that’s really all they do for the narrative.

Frustrated with the game’s combat, Tom Chick asks “Is a remarkable story buried under hours of non-remarkable game actually a good game?” Finding a myriad of inconsistencies while playing the game, Alisha Karabinus for Not Your Mama’s Gamer discovered not the Citizen Kane of games but rather “a movie occasionally interrupted by [her] urgent need to move a dumpster around.” Stu Horvath found the game unable to authentically replicate the feeling of frailty.

Sure, I have controlled characters that were frail, but I still controlled them. My avatars suffer so I will not.

On Pop Matters, Eric Swain call The Last of Us a work of emotional manipulation.

Characters are set up and moved around like pawns to ensure the most tragic and powerful set of events possible without any consideration to what those events could or might mean.

Contrary to the authors above, Shawn DeSouza-Coelho argues that because gameplay and narrative are designed through two mutually exclusive epistemologies–the former based on the “immediacy of task completion” and the latter on the “totality of signification”–their separation in The Last of Us allows the game to succeed:

The game is designed with an understanding that the immediate, task-based nature of flow does not lend itself to the ever-expanding ‘signifying chain’ of the narrative as a plotted journey over time.

Gender Bites

Perhaps the most sustained and contentious critical discussion of the The Last of Us revolves around its representations of gender. Some critics found the women of the narrative, especially Ellie, compelling, complex, and relatable. Others writers saw incredible potential in these characters but were disappointed that Joel’s emotional arc came before their own agency.

Chris Suellentrop brought the discussion to the New York Times, where he argues that The Last of Us is ultimately “another video game by men, for men and about men.” For Suellentrop, while Ellie and Sarah present glimmers of a different type of game, they’re cast in a “secondary, subordinate role” in the narrative. On Eurogamer, Ellie Gibson responds that The Last of Us, while no panacea for videogame sexism, is not “about men,” nor is Ellie “subordinate” to Joel.

At numerous points in the game, [Ellie] is the one in charge. She is the protector. At the end, it’s Joel who is revealed to be the weaker character. He needs Ellie more than she needs him.

Jason Killingsworth writes for Edge that The Last of Us writes female characters with agency, challenging the status quo when it comes to gender representation in games. But Carolyn Petit remains critical of this kind of praise.

Simply presenting women as people is hardly something that should be considered incredibly praiseworthy. Rather, it’s the bare minimum that we should expect from our narratives. To shower a game with praise for doing the minimum is to set the bar extremely low.

For the Guardian, Keith Stuart suggests that The Last of Us presents a masculinized vision of the apocalypse in which “the future will be ruled by men of violence and fervor, and that we have to become them in order to survive.”

Marijin contends that The Last of Us both reproduces tired gendered tropes and tries to subvert them, representative of a transitional period in the paradigm of gender in videogame narratives.

As a critique on the ultimate destructiveness of the ‘male protector’ trope and the way that most games conflate heroism with violence, The Last Of Us represents an important step in the right direction.

Ed Smith similarly takes a look at The Last of Us’ tragic portrayal and critique of the male protector, a trope more commonly used to centralize the player in narratives of masculine control and gendered delineation.

Ed Smith writes another piece on gender and The Last of Us, this time for Paste Magazine, where he conducts a close reading of the final scene. His analysis holds that the game envisions sexism, along with other cultural injustices, surviving the apocalypse and shaping the lives of remaining human society:

Ellie is playable in this scene only so we can surmise how little agency she now has, how that since being “rescued” by Joel, her vitality—her influence—has diminished to nothing.

Haniya Rae responds to Smith’s piece, offering an alternative reading of the ending sequence.

Lindsey Joyce analyzes the relationship between Joel and Ellie for First Person Scholar and places the game in context with the larger issues of gender representation within the videogame industry:

Joel privileges his own loss and his own emotions over Ellie’s. As the man, his emotions take precedence. This trend continues throughout the game and culminates in Joel’s ultimate betrayal of Ellie’s feelings.

For Waypoint, Cameron Kunzelman muses about the importance of Tess as the driving agent of the game’s early hours and the catalyst for Joel and Ellie’s journey:

For the player, Tess is the computer-controller follower. For Tess, the player is the muscle, the lackey, the guy who breaks the arms during the interrogations while she asks questions. She’s the operator behind their smuggling operation.

Jorge Albor wonders why, in a game that goes to lengths to create interesting female characters, all the human enemies are male. (CW: anti-indigenous slur) The Last of Us II seems positioned to address Albor’s criticism based on a gameplay trailer (CW: violence against women, gore), but not everyone seems enthused.

Dadification of the Apocalypse

One of the most popular approaches to discussing gender in The Last of Us has been examining the relationship between Joel and Ellie as one of surrogate father and daughter. As The Last of Us is positioned within the phenomenon known as “the dadification of games” alongside Bioshock Infinite and The Walking Dead. Writers have identified that as male developers age and start families, more games appear with paternal themes. Neil Druckmann has even admitted that his relationship with his daughter informed his creative direction. But do all these dads in games signal a maturation of the medium or simply present new styles of sexism?

Perhaps a good intro to The Last of Us as a manifestation of this phenomenon is Mattie Brice’s piece, where she suggests that the game’s model of fatherhood comes at the expense of daughters.

Basically, our audience and developers are getting older, but are still not observant of how they make all other types of people serve them for their character growth.

Jorge Albor argues that The Last of Us undermines any nascent concept of fatherhood by questioning the ethics of normative fatherly behavior when pushed to an extreme.” Bianca Batti disagrees with Albor’s assessment, arguing that the game does not undermine this type of fatherhood but instead “reassert[s] and rearticulate[s…] the norms of regulatory paternalism.”

Meanwhile, Jess Joho wonders how the daughter figures of games might fare on their own after inheriting – or moving past – the traumas (and game design conventions) of their fathers.

On Paste, Maddy Myers compares The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite, failing to empathize with their models of fatherhood.

I don’t think it’s practical to expect many people to empathize with the kind of fatherhood that The Last of Us depicts: a self-involved parenting style that, in theory, puts one’s child above everyone else, but actually just seems to be about putting one’s own comfort above that child’s decisions, dreams or personality.

For the academic journal Ada, Gerald Vorhees also looks at the depiction of dads in both The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite alongside academic discourse about masculinity in games. He concludes that the former game has more potential to challenge patriarchal paradigms:

To wit, I agree with Joho, Brice, and Myers that the dadification of games re-centers men and valorizes violence as power, but I ultimately argue that TLoU advances a construct of fatherhood that is paternal but not patriarchal and is thus less bound up in the pathologies of hegemonic masculinity and less toxic to a feminist, social-justice framework.

Bianca Batti returns to the subject following Vorhees’ piece, skeptical of his conclusions.

This time for Bullet Points, Jess Joho identifies the trope of the “Apocalypse Daddy” beyond videogames, including in the novel The Road and the film Logan. Comparing Joel to Logan, she concludes that to be a good Apocalypse Daddy requires “letting your daughter go, and giving her permission to leave you behind, and make a new life for herself.”

In any other context, Joel’s overbearing and controlling behavior toward his proxy daughter—particularly his insistence that she subscribe to his nihilistic view that this should be the last of us and humanity is not worth saving—would be called out for what it is: toxic parenting. But it’s the apocalypse.

Ed Smith, also for Bullet Points, writes about how Joel’s familial experience with Ellie mirrors his experience with Sarah, and how his final action is all the more heartbreaking for it.

[In his final lie to Ellie, he] is a father betraying the entire institution of family; with selfishness, he trivialises a unique and ineffable love.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel…?

Several writers shared their thoughts about The Last of Us’ contribution to the genre of post-apocalypse.

Jorge Albor compares The Last of Us and The Road in how they approach hope and compassion at the end of the world:

These stories appear time and again because, perhaps now more than ever, we find in the complexities of our daily lives a desire to cut away the chaff, the politics, the trappings of modernity, and remind ourselves that below it all, there is something terrifying, inspiring, depressing, or hopeful within ourselves.

The Last of Us makes Cameron Kunzelman think of The Road too, as well as Children of Men, but he feels some “apocalypse fatigue.”

I have watched and played and read the end of the world so many times that it just doesn’t do anything for me anymore. […]  It just makes me weary that our fantasies are about how we can’t help but fuck everything up.

Tauriq Moosa muses about the game’s brutal world, where remnants of civilization survive. But this very civilization produced Joel, a man who would sacrifice the world for his own redemption:

What is a father without a daughter? Someone we can’t trust to genuinely care about those of us remaining.

Cat Goodfellow looks at The Last of Us and other post-apocalyptic games through struggles with a “necropastoral” environment:

By reframing post-apocalyptic games away from the struggles and drama of a very specific kind of protagonist, and refocusing on player interactions with the (un)natural world, we gain a more honest experience.

Since the game’s early gameplay trailers were released, critics have been concerned about the game’s violence, hoping the brutality would actually mean something. For Reid McCarter, the game’s violence isn’t for shock value, but deeply important to the game’s post-apocalyptic narrative and characterization.

[Joel’s] betrayal hits on multiple levels, quieting any remaining doubts that his violence is any more justified than that perpetrated by the hundreds of bandits killed throughout the preceding hours.

The Nature of Space: Thinking About Environment

In The Last of Us, vegetation bursts out of the cracks of rusting metal, splashes of green flourishing over industrial decay and trash. How are we to relate to such a strange new world? Some writers gave some answers, and others asked more questions.  

Paul Bills writes that the relationship between humanity and nature in The Last of Us has roots in European Romanticism:

In the world of The Last of Us, nature gives the original Romantics what they always wanted by subduing humanity and taking back the Earth.

For issue 003 of Heterotopias, Gareth Damian Martin contends that this dichotomous depiction between humanity and nature  – that nature will survive and flourish in the absence of humanity – is not rooted in the realities of the Anthropocene. He argues that as human society constitutes a part of a chaotic environmental dynamic, nature may not bounce back from the damages of industrialism. (The above link is to an excerpt of Martin’s essay. To read the full article, issue 003 of Heterotopias can be purchased on itch.io.)

In short, the spaces of The Last of Us are not simply a realist vision of how cities might look after a decade or two without people, but a fantasy of death, an aesthetic monument to our desire for erasure by the entropy of nature.

Brian Taylor compares the Pittsburgh of The Last of Us to the one he’s lived in for years.

The Last of Us manages to abstract Pittsburgh in ways that are at times familiar and other times bizarre. It reduces the complexity of the city, fits it into the space bounded by technology and licensing and ideas about game design and visual media.

When The Last of Us Remastered released for the PS4, war photographer Ashley Gilbertson embedded himself in the apocalypse, documenting the virtual world with the game’s Photo Mode. He found the ability to freeze time to capture the “perfect” picture discouraged the human blemishes that make photography interesting. He also thought the characters rarely displayed appropriate expressions.

I shot through a dirty window at one point […] trying to emulate the refugee-in-bus-window-at-border-crossing image, but the subject, my virtual daughter, didn’t have the required expression of distress.

For First Person Scholar, Jason Lajoie writes that the Photo Mode presents new ways for players to configure narrative events and calls more detailed attention to the game’s spaces and mechanics.

Just as the decision to kill or not kill NPCs has prompted sustained debate between players, spectators and journalists, the decision regarding what to photograph or not—between what to document or overlook, disregard or avoid—may become more crucial to the moral and ethical dilemmas a game raises than the gameplay itself.

The Last of These Links

I end this critical compilation with an interview featuring The Last of Us creative director Neil Druckmann and game director Bruce Stanley, responding to some of the critical discussions surrounding the game. We close here not because the authors should have a final say on the game – have “authority” over how we are to interpret the text – but because game makers have their own insights, feelings, and experiences surrounding their work, however “biased,” that remain essential to understanding the processes by which games communicate ideas.

We hope that there’ll be more games like this, games that take story seriously, that really work hard to combine story and gameplay. I hope it leaves some kind of mark, and it inspires more people to make games like this, and to try to push it forward even further.

It’s hard to say exactly what mark The Last of Us made on the videogame industry. By-and-large, players and reviewers loved it, and the game sold 17 million copies in five years. But the game industry continues to trend towards open-world and procedural design, towards buckets of content ready for reproduction. Regardless of how the industry does or does not assimilate the design or narrative lessons of The Last of Us, the wealth of critical writing collected here reveals the game’s impact on contested discussions within videogame culture – from gender representation to corporate design.

Some critics and players may have wanted The Last of Us to be the Citizen Kane of games, a visionary object and the model of the form. But with a medium as broad and diverse as games, it never could have been. The Last of Us is The Last of Us of videogames. And maybe that’s all it needs to be.

Disclosure: Eric Swain, Bianca Batti, Lindsey Joyce, Cameron Kunzelman, and Mattie Brice have previously written for Critical Distance.