Usually in video games, the enemies I dispatch are deserving of their virtual punishment. Merciless soldiers, vicious mercenaries, hostile aliens, violent ninjas, destructive demons, and more; all of them attack me without hesitation or care. If I’m the aggressor, they push back just as hard, standing tall, with no fear. They represent the greater evil I intend to thwart by game’s end. It’s simple: I’m good, they are bad.
At E3 2012, I got my first dose of a game where the player character assaulted NPCs who not only showed fear, but may not have even been doing anything wrong to deserve such aggression. If anything, I felt sympathy for these poor souls being destroyed by the player’s own hands. It showed the brutal and harsh reality of life in a survival-first, post-apocalyptic world. This is exactly what I learned, feeling remorse and shame the whole way, when I watched a demo for The Last of Us.
As the demo opens up, Joel and Ellie are merely looking for a way to get through Pittsburgh and across the Fort Pitt Bridge. From everything we’ve previously seen of the duo, they are well-meaning people just looking for a way to survive. However, I soon learn that, if the player chooses, Joel’s method for survival can be incredibly brutal and cold-hearted. While there is a stealth and sneak option for what comes next, Naughty Dog wants us to see that in a world without order or structure, black and white can mix into a disturbing shade of gray.
Joel’s victims are a group of looters. Upon first discovering them, a few are discussing which rooms to check or not. They want to be thorough and not miss anything in the building they’re inspecting. They aren’t searching for people to kill, or things they can use to exploit others. No, they’re merely looking for things that can help their group survive to see another day. They aren’t shouting, they don’t sound menacing, and they certainly don’t seem like they’d threaten Joel and Ellie if they see them. But this isn’t normal society. Old rules don’t apply. People who seem nice can quickly turn on you and end your life with no repercussions. Knowing this harsh fact, Joel – or more so the player controlling him – decides to be the villain in the looters’ story.
After choking out one of the men, Joel is discovered. “Hurry, he’s got a gun!” the man shouts in a scared panic, running for cover. Joel has gone too far now, he has to shoot, and shoot he does. After downing the fleeing man, you hear his friend cry out in an angered anguish, “Mother f*#%er!” Even the men’s body language as they move about and battle Joel show an unfamiliarity with and unpreparedness for life-or-death shootouts.
After taking another looter hostage and putting him at gunpoint, the man pleas for his life and struggles not like someone who wants to overpower and kill Joel, but as someone who just wants to get away. “Take it easy,” he pleads as he’s dragged into the open. His friend – seeing that his partner is in mortal danger – threatens in a way that isn’t backed with authority, but fear and concern. “Oh f*#%! Let him go! You f*#%ing drop him!” he begs. He’s so worried about hitting his pal with a stray shot; he doesn’t fire, paralyzed with fear. Joel takes advantage by brutally murdering both men.
When Joel runs out of ammo and it seems this hell may be over for the looters, the one survivor of the initial group speaks with a tone mixed with relief and vengeance. “I got you now, you mother f*#%er!” he exclaims. Unfortunately for him, Ellie helps Joel gain the upper hand and his life is also viciously cut short.
It is at this point in the demo where Ellie becomes less of a sidekick and more my internal thoughts, commentating on the unforgiving approach taken by Joel. Saying good job, but backhanding it with the fact that what Joel just did was murder. Upon finding more looters concerned as to what happened to the others, Joel burns one of them alive with a Molotov cocktail. “Holy s^#@, Joel!” Ellie comments in disgust, as if she is reading my terrified mind. Knowing how bad the situation has become and that the only way out is more violence, Joel takes a cold approach and tells my brain to knock it off and “keep it together.”
Fighting off one of the last two looters, I hear him shout out with the same concern and terror the others felt. “He’s in here!” he tells his friend before Joel puts a shotgun butt to his face. The final adversary tries choking Joel with a frenzied anger that comes with the grief of losing all of one’s friends. Ellie, or my mind, knows that Joel is the only chance for survival in this adventure, however, and interjects with a knife to the shoulder. As Joel uses that advantage to the fullest and raises his gun to the last man’s face, you see the look of horror on it as he cries out, “No! Don’t-” before it is forever silenced by the firearm.
I feel shame. I feel guilt. I certainly don’t feel like the hero I’ve been in all games I’ve played before this. Instead I feel like someone quite different. I feel like the villain. But despite all of that, despite how wrong it all felt, it got the job done and kept Ellie safe, making it feel at least a shade of right. That’s the horrible duality of survival; the convergence of black and white into something grey and dirty. It’s a feeling I haven’t yet experienced in games – one I won’t forget – and one that I want to see through to its conclusion. I’ll get that chance when The Last of Us is released in 2013 for the PlayStation 3.