My gaming tastes have changed since I became a dad and not just because I didn’t have time anymore either. You see having a kid really moves around your perspective and goals and desires. It also changes who you identify with in the media you consume. Kratos from the God of War series was someone 16 year old me knew intimately. I could get into his brain and understand the frustration and alienation that drove his madness.
Then, boom, I have a son and suddenly Kratos seems immature and impotent.
I mean, I still enjoyed God of War because of the fighty bits, but I couldn’t pump my fist in solidarity with our rage-filled protagonist because I found his motivation to be laughable.
So now I’m a dad and I don’t get certain games anymore.
Then, suddenly, a bunch of games with Dads as protagonists start coming out.
So what does all of this have to do with The Last of Us?
It stars a great father who turns into a psychopathic killing machine because his daughter dies.
Ellie’s totally talking to Joel here.
It’s no wonder that all of the most recent high profile “dad games” focus on a father-daughter relationship rather than a father-son relationship. I don’t think the men working in Video Games are quite ready to tackle just how complicated it can be to raise a son in our modern era. It’s much easier (read: Lazier) to cast a daughter and then have her be victimized by the antagonist(s).
Wait, scratch that, we do have a great example of a father/son relationship in The Walking Dead in which Duck gets zombified half-way through and you have to shoot him. He’s really just a prop. A reason to MAKE the player choose whether or not they can shoot a dying kid in the face. Would the developers have put a daughter in Duck’s place?
Anyway, back to The Last of Us. Joel starts the game as a single father just making it by and being at least present in his daughters life. He’s not the best, he’s forgetful and acerbic and awkward in his role but his daughter appreciates him none-the-less. So of course things go to shit quickly and his daughter bites the dust because of a trigger happy soldier. By the time you and Joel get to the end of the game he’s become a pathetic effigy of “father”. Someone who lies and kills and steals because of the IDEA of being a dad. The type of father who life vicariously though their kids and can’t let them save the world by having their brain removed (don’t get me started on that scientific bullshit).
That’s the main theme I can take away from this game. It’s stuffed with thoughtful characters and atmospheric music and innovative combat systems that are hampered by bad writing and repetitive puzzles and unnecessary combat sequences.
Take, for example, the non-combat wilderness scenes. It gives a the player room to breathe between climactic scenes in the narrative but this room is few and far between as most often that reflection is shattered by another boring combat room. Your enemies aren’t smart enough and are too numerous to present any real excitement or enjoyment. Even on the harder difficulties the bad-guys remain dreadfully stupid and one by one walk into your stealthy crouch of death where the only thing stopping you is the durability on your home-made shiv.
Which brings me back to my main point, that of Joel as a father and relatable figure turned murder-machine. His motivations quickly morph from “grieving for my dead daughter” to “protecting my daughter proxy from any and all harm” and the one time Joel isn’t there to protect Ellie she almost gets raped.
Ellie, after being a complete badass who is able to hunt, shoot, and track a huge buck through a snowy wilderness. Who kills scores of zombies with her unbreakable shiv (take THAT Joel) and who single handedly burns down an entire town full of well-meaning cannibals, somehow can’t take down a 50+ year old man who’s been stabbed multiple times. She has to just wait until Joel comes to save her. I mean, I get it, he’s the player character and his job is to do everything but he was not 3 hours ago passed out in a fever coma from being run through by a metal pole because of his blood thirst. Why not let Ellie take care of herself this time? Because we need to be worried for Ellie in some way and the laziest way for writers to do that is to put her in danger of being raped.
The next time we see our dynamic duo, Joel is having trouble understanding why Ellie is being so distant and quiet. Maybe it’s because the writers fucked her over.
In the end, I did really enjoy my time with The Last of Us. The story it told was more mature than most anything modern videogames produce and the post-apocalyptic world Naughty Dog built is full of nasty life. I can’t be completely happy with it though because of both the gameplay and narrative tropes it falls back on.
For once, I want my Video Game developers to give their consumers more credit.