The Last of Us is universally praised for its realistic depiction of the human condition as well as a realistic depiction of the physical world, but why do we each as individuals enjoy this game?
In reviews, people tend to speak with great enthusiasm regarding the moral implications, superb characterization, and the torrent of emotions felt on the first playthrough. Not to mention a unanimous love for the young, female protagonist Ellie.
One thing this game doesn’t need is another review filled to the brim with feels, so I’m taking a different direction, one more logical and philosophical.
There’s no doubt that there is something very appealing about the game on a personal and potentially intimate level. I am led to believe the reasons are hidden in plain sight.
The Last of Us is a perfect example of a concept called hyperreality: A real without origin or reality. French sociologist Jean Baudrillard explains this concept in four very simplified steps.
- basic reflection of reality
- perversion of reality
- pretense of reality (where there is no model)
- simulacrum, a representation or image of something, which bears no relation to any reality whatsoever; related to the word simulation, which is also an imitation.
In short, hyperreality is essentially a replication of reality that is more stable, predictable, and satisfying than actual reality.
It is a representation of reality that has no relation to said reality.
The Last of Us meets this description in multiple ways
- First being, the game is a reflection of a reality like ours.
- Secondly, the presence of an apocalypse manipulates said reality thoroughly
- Third, the game sets up a story that simply isn’t plausible but not because of the obvious fictitious elements. Because of the way in which the game is presented, it can very well appear real and sells itself on said realism.
- Lastly, The Last of Us is a simulation that has no bearing in reality. Not because it literally isn’t real but because it has no relation to anything real (bear with me)
None of this to say the game is objectively terrible or even bad, but to understand why TLoU and its contemporaries can be appealing to us as individuals.
Keeping in mind the concept of hyperreality, let’s examine how The Last of Us achieves its magnetism.
Video Game Shorthand
Video Game shorthand is a brief action that conveys meaning to the player without needing an explanation. Depending on the execution, it should be understood despite any necessary contradictions in the gameplay.
These cinematic dramatizations take place outside of gameplay, but because games are an interactive medium clever developers also couple this with gaming mechanics that reflect the actual story and its characters. Hence why RPGs “diverge significantly from the cinematic aesthetic.” (Newman, 46)
Example: Joel and Ellie’s Subtle Interactions During Gameplay
During stealth sections of the game, Ellie was designed to hurry to Joel for cover, while Joel would naturally put his arm over her as a means of protection. The meaning in this action is meant to express Joel’s natural fatherly qualities and reflect Ellie’s familial relation to Joel. Max Dyckhoff Naughty Dog game developer, says this animation helps build the relationship between the two characters.
This example perfectly demonstrates how developers can use unconventional methods to express characters and the story in an authentic manner.
When there are obstacles in the game such as high walls or fences Joel must help Ellie climb over. This is done by a 3 second animation in which Joel gets in a position to boost Ellie up and over. She then in return helps pull him up. Ellie also reveals she cannot swim early on so large bodies of water are located throughout the game and nearby are conveniently placed wooden planks for Joel to transport Ellie across on.
These simple mechanics tell the player that Ellie and Joel rely on each other and when strategically done well enough, it can get the point across.
Unfortunately, the developers cannot see such concepts through, in that they are more than willing to portray an abundance of these bonding moments (which require a decent amount of disbelief already) but far more hesitant to show any darker realities.
This is when the hyperreal aspects of the game are most notable. TLoU wishes to reflect reality in every single way, until adherence to reality creates inconvenience. The problem being that much of reality and our experiences with it are shaped by its inconveniences, its restrictions.
Without restriction or even contradiction, reality is no longer reality but something else entirely.
TLoU surgically extracts the real from reality, but in such a way that it still feels real without actually reflecting any reality, and it does so on purpose.
In an article called How Naughty Dog created a partner, not a burden, with Ellie in The Last of Us, Dyckhoff elaborates these particular moments:
The first step, Dyckhoff said, was to treat the character as a person.
“Ellie’s tendency to stick with Joel was influenced by developer’s desire to keep players from blaming Ellie at any point. If she’s always with Joel…then her actions are no more stupid than the player’s. Part of Naughty Dog’s original design for the game included having to save Ellie even if she was far off-screen, but the mechanic was drastically scaled back to keep her from being a burden.”
Naughty Dog wanted Ellie to remain close to the player in any given scenario without being annoying and without “cheating ” — teleporting or causing too much chaos. To that end, the character needed to be helpful in battle and not blow cover during moments of stealth.
“If she’s just staying close to you, she’s just going to be an escort quest,” Dyckhoff said. “… If she does stuff, you’re going to care about her even more.” (Polygon)
The sheer amount of manipulation necessary to make Ellie ideal for an apocalypse is fascinating.
They made sure she was never…
- at fault
- doing anything stupid
- messing up
“The first step, Dyckhoff said, was to treat the character as a person.”
What 14 year-old girl is none of the above? What average person is none of the above?
These developers ensured Ellie was perfect and just to hammer in said perfection, she’s even self-sacrificial (spoilers). Not to mention she is also decent looking, cute even. Naughty Dog left no stone unturned in this regard.
This isn’t a reality for anyone, especially not a 14-year old girl in an apocalypse.
How can a game which presents reality without the real, ever represent the human condition?
Is our condition as humans somehow not related to how faulty we can be, how stupid we can be, how burdensome we can be, how messed up we are?
Let’s examine these crucial moments:
The Forgiving Apocalypse
In many sections, the player has to depend on stealth and strategy to defeat enemies. The clickers, people infected by a fungi based infection called Cordyceps, cannot be confronted head on and can easily overpower the player aka Joel with one hit kills.
This is indeed what would probably happen if there ever was such an apocalyptic event.
This reality is, however, simultaneously negated because while Joel can be exposed on sight, Ellie (“to keep players from blaming [her] at any point”) cannot be seen by the enemies standing over top of her, making her practically invincible, and removing the gravity of such an inconvenient situation.
The issue isn’t so much the contradiction itself as it is the reasons why this is possible and the developer’s strong stance on the sincerity of this experience.
The developers intentionally constructed contrived situations at the expense of reality to create a false relationship between the player and Ellie. All of this so that Ellie would not be the burden she would most assuredly be in an apocalypse.
Hyperreality is a replication of reality that is more stable, predictable, and satisfying than actual reality.
In reality, the player would’ve grown tired of Ellie early into their journey because bringing along a teenage kid, no matter how witty, would produce more misery than enjoyment for reasons that don’t need to be explained.
The developers need you, the player, to enjoy yourself and your relationship with this girl, even if it is all manipulated to illicit the desired response. That’s the goal.
If Joel is confronted by a clicker, it’s an instant kill, but Ellie struggles for 30 seconds. She is 14 years old and can wrestle with a creature that kills a healthy, combat experienced 50-something year old man instantly.
This solely exists to give the player a chance to be a ‘hero’ but in doing so the possibility of death is devoid of meaning because Ellie should’ve been dead the moment she was caught. Nothing is at stake. What is it to be human if death is no longer a factor?
The developer’s primary concern was to make the player feel emotional, not construct a reality that would naturally convey these emotions.
A Notion of Purpose
Both The Last of Us and Telltale’s The Walking Dead are only a year apart and both won Game of the Year in their respective years. The father-daughter concept is clearly lucrative because it first and foremost lays a familiar blueprint, giving the game a natural purpose and direction.
With no purpose comes despair and in TLoU hopelessness is often spoken of, but is simply not convincing because the companion, in all of their innocence and charm, is a constant source of hope without the fragility, and quite literally in TLoU because Ellie, as it happens, (spoiler) is the potential cure to what caused the apocalypse and she simultaneously allows Joel to be a father again.
There is nothing more hopeful than that, but the game wants the player to believe the future to be otherwise bleak, not because it actually is but to maximize the feels.
In the end, I believe the claim that TLoU depicts the human condition or any reality whatsoever is utterly false for the simple fact that the game solely seeks to please the player, and will manipulate the game in any manner to do so.
Universal praise for The Last of Us is what happens when wish-fulfillment is accompanied by vague realism woven together with an expertly tailored story. As a result, it is mistaken as a depiction of the actual human condition when in reality it is an all too usual case of wish-fulfillment taking itself quite seriously and trying to sell itself as something more.
What remains is a cathartic simulation, a skillful conglomeration of ideas and symbols like parenthood, hope, love, and fear severed from reality and forged into a hyperreality that offers more supremely packaged stimulus than the average reality ever could.