The Last Of Us is the most recent release by Naughty Dog, the developers who cut their teeth on the juvenile Jak and Daxter series before graduating to the big time with their adventure series, Uncharted.  Uncharted took everything that was exciting and fun about Raiders of the Lost Ark and introduced it to a generation that had just been burned by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, giving us a flawed but loveable rogue in its hero, Nathan Drake, as well as a deep supporting cast of men and women who aided and impeded his exploits around the globe in search of mystical relics.  It was fun, but it gave us a glimpse of the mechanics that would be used in The Last Of Us.

That said, The Last Of Us has almost nothing to do with Uncharted.

Cormac McCarthy is the author of novels such as Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, and The Road, that Oprah Book Club approved romp about a man and his son trying to avoid being raped or cannibalized after an unnamed apocalypse wipes out most of humanity.  To the best of my knowledge, Cormac McCarthy has never given an interview or even a statement on the rhetorical debate about whether or not video games can be art, which makes it all the more intriguing that he’s very obviously inspired what may be the greatest claim to date that they are.  The Last Of Us features a man taking a child across the country, trying at every turn not to be robbed, mutilated, raped, infected with disease, or killed.  There’s not a lot of humor involved (although there is some), it doesn’t make you feel good about what you’re doing (although it gives you very little choice but to do what you have to), and it’s not so difficult that you feel like you’ve accomplished something extraordinary (though there were times where I wanted to throw my controller across the room).

In short, The Last Of Us doesn’t really feel like a game, which makes writing about it somewhat tricky.  It’s not a movie, but it plays in my head like one, but this in itself is nothing new.  Lots of games have felt cinematic before.

What sets The Last Of Us apart is that it plays like a good movie.  A really good one, in fact.  One of the best.

In John Ford’s 1956 classic western The Searchers, a young girl is in danger and a man is sent to find her.  This man, Ethan Edwards, is not a good man.  He’s made his living and his reputation on killing, and there’s nothing particularly charming about him as he goes murdering his way through the American west to rescue a girl that he’ll kill if her honor isn’t intact.  Ethan Edwards is played by John Wayne, however, and many casual viewers of the film mistake him for a hero because of the baggage that Wayne brings to the role.  After all, if you can’t trust John Wayne, who can you trust?  For a certain generation of men in this country, John Wayne was basically our father.

Joel (no last name given, or at the very least no last name needed) is not a hero in The Last Of Us.  He’s a dead man, a man who stopped living twenty years ago when tragedy took his family away from him, as the world screamed in unsympathetic agony.  He’s a ghost, who now makes his living making other ghosts.  When he and his partner Tess find the payment for their smuggling gone missing, he is forced to protect a young girl named Ellie to get his payment back.  Ellie is not Joel’s daughter, she’s his paycheck.

Of course, because we are playing a “video game,” and because we see almost everything from Joel’s point of view, it is very easy for us to believe that his actions are always justified, that he’s a good man deep down who is dealing as best he can with an impossible situation.  This is how we lie to ourselves when we need heroes in our lives.

As they make their way from Boston to Utah, Joel and Ellie forge a bond in the blood of countless other men.  These other men would probably try to murder them if given the chance, but that chance is rarely given.  The affection Joel and Ellie feel for each other becomes very real, and very powerful, but ultimately it damns everyone it touches.

Stop reading if you haven’t finished the game.

I will not warn you again.

Ellie carries the cure to the plague that has devastated mankind, and Joel has been trying to get her safely into the care of those who could use her to bring hope to a hopeless world.  When he finds that Ellie’s immunity can only be utilized post-mortem, that he has essentially delivered her to her own doom, Joel reacts the only way we’ve seen him react to anything.

He reacts with violence.

Joel murders everyone that stands between him and Ellie, sacrificing the future of humanity for a girl he agreed to protect for money.  The money’s long gone, and the bond Joel has with Ellie is as real as any bond that any father has with their daughter, but it’s made clear that this is not what Ellie would have wanted.  Ellie chooses to believe Joel’s lies about what really happened in the hospital, but it’s clear that this fragile peace will not last.  Ellie wants to believe that Joel is a hero, and so do we.  Eventually, Ellie will realize the truth, but by then will there be any of her humanity left to care?  Joel has damned not only all of mankind, but his own soul, and possibly Ellie’s as well.  He’s not a good man, and he never was.

We believe our fathers are heroes, whether they’re our fathers by the blood in our veins or the blood on their hands.  But having a child put into those bloody hands does not instantly make you a good man.

It only gives you a reason to become one.

“What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever ask me more.”