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The Last of Us Succeeds by Challenging the Player's Morality

From my blog at FatItalianPlumber.com:

I have had moments in my life when I cannot tell if it is improving or only getting worse. I don't have a specific, definable moment that I can point to and accuse of being when everything bottomed out. So I have no idea where the bottom is, or if I have reached it already. The scary part isn't that I may have hit bottom. It's that I may still be somewhere near the top.

In The Last of Us, the latest game from developer Naughty Dog of Uncharted fame, Joel knows the exact moment when his life bottomed out. You know it, too, as the player. You play through that moment in the game's opening sequence. You play as his daughter. You don't play as her long.

How far would you go to save your daughter? Or your son? Or any family member? Doesn't matter who, as long as they are loved. Maybe your cat. How far would you go? What would you do? How many people would you hurt? Would you hurt everyone? And when I type everyone, I mean: everyone.

That's the question the game poses to its player. You are its player and you get to think about that question for awhile. The game takes place twenty years after a global virus has wrecked the human race. Our global village is left in shambles. We've seen this theme many times recently. It's the zeitgeist of our times. Often times it feels like we are in the final act. Perhaps we're just being self-centered.

Joel is the man you control through most of the game. And what a game. Details, details. It's chock full of details. There are some scenes that focus merely on how the breeze sways the overgrowth that has spread across a city some two decades after its been abandoned. There's humanity there, in its connection with nature, even if there are no longer humans living in that city (none that you would care to invite to dinner, anyway). There's also humanity when Joel and Ellie, the girl he is escorting across the United States to meet with an underground resistance group called the Fireflies, happen upon grazing giraffes, free of the zoo in Salt Like City. It's Giraffe City now, baby.

You also happen across zombies, for lack of a better term. They are actually disease-ridden, insane fungal-faced creatures, formerly people, who can kill you quick. Like one-shot quick. The most notorious of these, called 'clickers', prowl the darkest parts of these abandoned cities, in the places where the giraffes fear to tread. Their heads palpitate fungal overgrowth, caused by the fungal virus that decimated humankind. They look like body horror from a David Cronenberg film.

I dare not give away too much of the plot, although it is hard to discuss the game's emotional and political core without discussing its ending. But don't worry. If you haven't played it, I won't spoil it for you. This is despite the fact that the ending of the game, and all of its key plot points, must be discussed in order to write about the game's most important aspect: how the game is playing your emotions more than you are playing its characters.

The game has gotten nearly universal praise. Good. It should. But some criticism has been lobbied at its mediocre game play mechanics, particularly the third-person shooter aspects of the game. Good, too. Those mechanics are mediocre.

Tom Chick of Quarter to Three writes:

"The Last of Us is ... [linear], but it has an uneasy time deciding whether itís action, stealth, survival horror, or a reload-and-replay atrocity. It visits urban jungles, suburban idylls, and even wilderness, but itís always the same tortured rooms and hallways. A lot of the time itís a tactical soldier vs. soldiers shooter amid conspicuously arrayed waist-high cover. When you come into a room, you know by the layout when thereís going to be a shootout."

Chick is totally correct in his assertion about The Last of Us's game play. Philip Kollar makes a similar complaints in his review of the game from Polygon, more titled as "Dead Inside":

But at increasingly frequent points in the narrative, I had to buckle down and deal with the messy gunplay and repeated checkpoint restarts ... Combat against the zombie-esque infected is especially frustrating.

There is also an even deeper political meaning rooted within the game. The game is political. Man is it ever political. It asks us to decide whether we agree with the choice made by one of its protagonists, a choice that may alter the fate of all of humanity. We, the players, don't make the choice. No, the game's storyline does that for us. But we get to think about the ramifications and the morality of that choice long after the game is over. I finished playing this game days before writing this review. I'm still playing it in my head.

The game has a specific political stance: it rejects utilitarianism in favor of right-libertarianism. Utilitarianism is essentially a school of political ideology that believes that actions should bring about the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people. On the other end of the spectrum, right-libertarianism claims, instead, that natural resources can be appropriated by the first person that finds them, without the consent of others, and without providing compensation. Broadly, right-libertarianism believes that actions that bring about the greatest amount of good for the individual, but not necessarily the greatest amount of people, are, at least, acceptable (this is different from left-libertarianism, which argues that there ought to be compensation towards society for natural resources appropriated by the individual).

I know, this is a lot of academic philosophy. But the game inspires it. It deserves to be discussed at an academic level, because it asks fundamental philosophical and political questions about morality. The game demands this discussion, because if you aren't thinking about these ideas after completing The Last of Us, you didn't get to the final level, which is the one were you think about the game's worldview compared to your own. This is a game where the final level exists in the mind of the player after the game is over, after it is defeated. The final level is the player's emotional response to the choice made by one of the game's protagonists at game's end. The game is never really defeated, because the dilemma between individual rights and group rights has been ongoing for thousands of years, and that is the dilemma that The Last of Us explores, and the dilemma in which it stakes a political stance. But is it ever satisfying to see this argument expressed in the form of a video game, and a popular one at that.

The Last of Us is an advocate of right-libertarianism. Anyone who has played the game to its end would be intimately familiar with the natural resource at stake in the game's world, ie., the cure for humanity. The game argues that this natural resource does not belong to everyone in some egalitarian manner, but in fact belongs to Ellie and Ellie alone, the person who originally possesses this natural resource. She is unable to understand the moral consequences of the important natural resource she holds, simply because of her age. This is why in a structured society minors have guardians capable of making legal decisions for them. That is why The Last of Us's plot unfolds as it does, right to the end.

The fictional United States in The Last of Us is not a structured society. Joel becomes her guardian merely by fate alone. Whether Joel, Ellie, or the Fireflies have the right to determine the fate of the human race, or whether they have the right to force their own self-interests to take precedence before humanity's fate, is where the real game play of The Last of Us exists. The standard third-person shooter mechanics are ancillary to the game's true game play, which is the player's emotional reaction to the moral dilemma faced by the game's protagonists right up until its final scene.
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About JeremyDaleWallone of us since 8:21 AM on 12.16.2012

28-year-old university student and writer who spends far too much time playing video games.