NOTA: Il pezzo che segue è stato scritto in inglese perché riteniamo possa essere di interesse generale anche al di fuori dei confini italici. Attenzione agli spoiler, leggetelo solo se avete finito il gioco.
WARNING: This article goes into detail of The Last Of Us ending. Read only after you’re done playing it.
Since the release of The Last Of Us, the video game community has been bursting with discussions about its story arc. A short recap: in a post apocalyptic future, humanity has mostly been swept away by a fungal disease. Joel, a man whose daughter has been killed by the army when the infection started, and has since worked as a smuggler, is tasked with escorting a young girl, Ellie, to a medical centre run by the Fireflies, a rebel organisation working to rebuild society. Ellie is important: she is immune to the disease. Her blood can be the key to create a vaccine to save humanity. Joel reluctantly starts the mission, looking forward to its end, and tries to keep emotional distance from Ellie: he’s still destroyed by his daughter’s death.
In his journey Joel kills dozens of people and just as many infected. He kills them with incredible brutality: this is a violent game. But unlike the games in Naughty Dog’s other franchise, Uncharted, the violence never feels gratuitous. Joel is a violent man in a violent world, not a murderous archeologist searching a treasure. The studio whose games have popularised the term “ludonarrative dissonance” is also the one that found a way around it, by making us play in a brutal world, as a ruthless man who becomes famous for his brutality. Because of this, some analysis of the game see him as a psychopath in disguise, whose madness is never apparent until the very end of the game. It’s a good way to justify a bleak and brutal ending, but it’s not that simple.
Joel is not a sociopath. We see him show empathy to others in many occasions, as when he team ups with Henry and Sam and offers to bring them along with him in his mission. He’s a broken man, though: the death of his daughter has left him hollow, and because of that he seems to have a great facility in killing people with incredible violence. But when we control him, we don’t see him ever approaching innocents (at least until the ending). We follow him in situations where he’s always in danger of being killed. Judging his killing streak with “normal life” parameters makes no sense. His is a violent world, one where he found out he can excel in.
What really tips Joel, though, is another kind of violence: the one of mobs against the individual. In the beginning of the story, his daughter is killed in cold blood by a soldier for no reason. This sends him on a lone wolf path, where he’s comfortable to ally himself only with few people. When we meet him after 20 years he’s working with Tess, and only with her; after her death he would rather be alone than escort Elle, as he makes perfectly clear. He doesn’t want to be responsible for someone else again, and he doesn’t want to belong to a larger group. But during his journey with Ellie, he learns to open up again, he makes himself available to love again. Ellie saves him, he sees her grow, they form a bond he never experienced since his daughter died.
Joel is suspicious of the Fireflies, and his brother seems to share his distrust of them, but he still believes in the mission. When he finally brings them Ellie he’s beaten, cuffed and held at gunpoint. He’s told that Ellie has to die so that the doctors can harvest her cells to synthesise the antidote for curing humanity. But he’s given no proof. He can’t even say goodbye to her. Trapped and blind, a larger group is again taking someone he loves, with violence. This time, he can do something. And he does. He snaps, killing everyone in his path, driven by blind rage; rescues Elle, and, fully conscious that she would have wanted to die for the cause, unable to process what he did, he lies to her (and probably to himself too), making up a story to cover his acts.
This is not a story that indicts a violent man, making us “ashamed” of thinking we are like him. Rather, this is a tragedy in the classic sense, a story where two forces of great strength are pitted against each other and end out clashing in a fight that leaves both of them defeated and broken.
Describing Joel as just a violent man is a disservice to an amazingly complex and deep story that seem to form a thematic trilogy of sorts with two other great games of this generation. Both Bioshock Infinite and Red Dead Redemption tell stories of men and their families fighting against deceiving and violent groups (be it governments, small rebel movements, or street mobs). Rooted in classic Americana and different shades of the western tradition, that’s a tale that seems tailor made for videogames, and for shooters in particular, where a person has to fight against the world; it’s a new game story archeotype, one of the first, and one that can really go deep.