Of Loyalty and the Human Condition – An Analysis of The Last of Us
Loyalty. A quality every one of us requires in any relationship, loyalty permeates every facet of our culture. From religion, to culturally-specific customs, to basic friendship, we assume–and even expect–each acting member of society to remain loyal to something. Everything.
In games, I believe loyalty is brushed under the rug in lieu of other characterizations such as resourcefulness in combat. This is obviously determined by genre of game, but it still seems to be something not as in-your-face as other qualities.
That in mind, one game shines above the others for me in terms of loyalty. Some may say I am giving into the hype and am biased, others may say it’s overrated. Say what you will, but The Last of Us exemplifies beautiful narrative amidst an over-saturated market of zombie games and more than that, it is a hauntingly wonderful insight into the human condition. I will be exploring how the game tackles different aspects of this, including how it all loops back to loyalty.
Neil Druckman has said as much when discussing The Last of Us: Part Two–this game was and is very much about loyalty and love. More than that, loyalty OUT OF love.
We all know the narrative follows Joel after the cordyceps outbreak claims his daughter, Sarah. The prologue, only ten minutes long if you explore the house, already contains emotion. This sets the stage for the remainder of the plot. Fast-forward 20 years and Joel now has to escort Ellie across the country to the Fireflies, where they would experiment on Ellie (killing her in the process) to find a cure.
Both parties are unwillingly coupled, yet–even in the very genesis of their relationship–there is an unspoken loyalty. Joel will protect Ellie because she reminds him of Sarah (more than that, due to their age difference, Joel feels an innate fatherly responsibility to protect her), and Ellie will remain loyal to Joel because he’s the father figure she’s never had. No matter their motivation, both Joel and Ellie stick together, protecting one another to the very end.
Perhaps this was out of necessity. Perhaps it was because they found redeeming qualities in the other. Or perhaps it was out of love. The love father and daughter share. It is clear in the end that their loyalty–even if questioned by Joel’s paternal instinct to sacrifice the greater good to redeem his 20-year loss–remained unbroken. A loyalty borne of circumstance, gestated in necessity, but ultimately maintained out of love. A loyalty–in my eyes–hardly matched by any other narrative-based game on the market.
The game would not exist if it weren’t for this deep, relative characterization. Without any bond between characters, the narrative loses all meaning and a becomes purposeless vehicle for combat scenarios, which would just be relegated to a shooting gallery. Everything hinges on how these characters interact, relate, and ultimately love for one another.
Naughty Dog was well aware of this. They were also aware of a gamer’s need to relate. Because without relatable characters, we lose part of that connection and that is what TLOU is trying to get across. The narrative team searched inside themselves to find this connection and what they came away with was something so uncannily human, it was nearly palpable. So human in fact, it was just as ephemeral as our very existence. The one plight of every living thing on this planet: mortality. The narrative doesn’t address this as obviously as other themes. Sure, the game basically states so within its own title, as well as Sarah’s death, but never focuses on it outright. Rather, it is tackled quite intelligently, with clever subliminal suggestions. This comes in the form of Joel and his grief.
Time does not heal all wounds. As stated above, we really don’t see how the game deals with what happened. Instead, it skips ahead 20 years. That doesn’t mean Joel isn’t grieving. In fact, he never left the fourth stage of grief: depression.
One may argue Joel was simply blaming himself. Well, that is not incorrect. One may also argue he was still in denial, the first stage. In some instances that is also true. Depression comes in all shapes and forms; feelings of emptiness, or nothingness arise while grief enters our lives on a deeper level. It corners us and forces us to withdraw, questioning whether there is a point to existence. Whether there is a point to going on alone, or at all. In some cases, anger and denial are most certainly present. With Joel, his depression has become such a part of him that all of the above weigh him down. It’s this depression that likely spurred Joel to become a smuggler in the first place. It’s this depression that yearns to be loved in a manner in which fills the void left by his daughter’s death, and it’s this depression that ultimately lead to Joel’s decision to lie to Ellie. He could not bear to lose another daughter, even if it meant dishonesty.
This makes Joel seem stoic and self-involved. A pity-party, if you will. But for some, that is how depression manifests to those who aren’t experiencing the same. He is most assuredly withdrawn, STILL questioning whether life is worth living. This stage was absolutely necessary to the narrative. If he were in any other, he would not have reacted correctly to Ellie. He did not admit it, but he desperately needed Ellie’s companionship. A very Elizabethtown necessity, trading an intimate relationship for a paternal one. There is plenty of evidence to support this, but the only one I will mention is whenever the pair take cover, Joel is ALWAYS stepping in front of Ellie, making sure his arm is around her, against the blockade. This was not a coincidence of animation, this was planned.
All of this relates back to that morality we all have in common. Without this, Sarah’s death, Joel’s grief, and Ellie’s lost innocence serve no purpose. In this effect, the plot is very much about loss as well. However, from this loss, comes need, and from this need, comes loyalty. In this narrative, everything is connected. One cannot survive without the other, intermingling and coexisting with its counterpart. It is a balance; Joel and Ellie both lost something dear, but they gained each other. In his darkness was her light and when her light was forced to adapt and grow, his embrace comforted her and they grew together.
Their individual quandaries, their respective coping of loss and understanding of love brought these two wayward souls together in a time when they needed it the most. A time when morality and mortality were questioned, forged something they both required, but would never admit: Loyalty. A loyalty borne of circumstance, gestated in necessity, and maintained out of a love that grew and evolved along with their perspectives and innocence.