100% spoilers warning: The Last of Us (2013)
Dear Naughty Dog,
When I was 14 I was told that girls were bad at video games. Not NES and Sega games, not the simple two or three button setups, but the advanced layouts of the PlayStation and Xbox controllers. There were too many buttons, they explained, the controls were too complicated and girls just weren’t smart enough to master that level of hand-eye coordination. This was explained to me by 14 year old boys, and unfortunately I hadn’t yet learned that they were idiots and not to be trusted.
I’ve loved video games for as long as I can remember, yet I’ve never been particularly good at them. I’ve pushed through the challenges for the games that I love and have grown with from generation to generation, but I’ve hardly strayed from my circle of comfort and safety. Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing – these are my bread and butter. A few times I have dipped a toe and tried something new; Silent Hill here, Metal Gear Solid there, and Uncharted as well, but it always went poorly.
This is pretty but I can hardly tell where the ledge goes – source
Each “complex” game that I tried felt completely out of my league. The graphics and color palettes were too realistic so I was always overlooking an item that I needed – it simply blended into the background. Many of the games required shooting, and I don’t have great aim (in life, or in video games). Plus, I am startled and scared easily, so if an enemy came into view most likely I would end up panicking and spraying bullets everywhere only to end up dead with an empty gun. (Case in point – playing CS:S at a LAN party when I was 19. I was hiding in wait, and when the guy ran into the room I emptied my clip in his general direction, didn’t hit him with a single bullet, then he knifed me to death and ran off) The menu systems were deep and sophisticated, and with every button on the controller being put to use I simply couldn’t remember which one to push. The games moved at a breakneck speed with a lot of action and no time to stop and think. It just didn’t feel like they were for me.
The truth is, though, that I was afraid of proving them right. I didn’t want to give the 14 year old boys from my past the satisfaction of having proof that girls weren’t smart enough to play the “advanced games,” and it’s disappointing that I hung onto that for so long. With each failed attempt to play a new type of game I felt their presence pressing in around me, sneering and laughing at my timid movements and repeated deaths. Even through years of befriending women who spent their evenings waist deep in Gears of War, Halo, Dragon Age, and more (clearly proving that women were just as capable as men at playing these games) I remained hesitant to move forward and possibly bring shame to my gender – or some similar and incredibly idiotic thought.
Not gonna lie, this makes me feel completely overwhelmed – source
But it wasn’t just that. It has long been obvious to me that the best story lines live within the Mature rated titles. (There are exceptions, of course, but I’m not about to write a caveat for every single example.) I wanted to play them, but every time I tried was an abysmal failure. And it wasn’t just that the enemies were too strong, or that it was never obvious what I needed to do next. It was the realistic and gritty graphics, the violence being turned up to eleven; these are conspicuously absent from the games that I usually play.
“Why does ‘Mature’ have to equal ‘violent’ for the designers?!” I would shout angrily, to no one in particular. Slowly my barrier to entry shifted from “these games are too hard to control and I’m embarrassed” to “these games are too violent and I’m uncomfortable.” Over time I begrudgingly accepted that I was boxed out. End of story.
Enter: The Last of Us.
This game disrupted everyone’s life when it came out. Everyone was talking about it, cosplay of Ellie exploded, and it seemed like every person I knew was playing it. People were impressed, moved, and engaged by the story. Heated discussions repeatedly broke out among my friends over whether or not Joel did the right thing. I had seen bits of the game play, including the ending, and jumped into the fray insisting that what Joel did was wrong.
But I wasn’t going to play this game, are you kidding me? Look at how violent! Look at those realistic graphics! Joel gets hardly any bullets and many of the enemies literally rip him in half if he gets too close to them. And I have to sneak everywhere because of exploded-faced Clickers? No way. No. Way.
I did not like this room – source
As hype has been ramping up for The Last of Us II the discussions have returned. Whispers of just how amazing the first game was resurfaced, talk of Joel’s decisions came around again, and people I know have been considering starting a new file. And somehow, someway, I learned that the game had an Easy Mode. This felt like my chance. People could not stop talking about it, and after five years I decided that I wanted in. The allure of the story was too great, the reverence for the game too strong. It had broken through all of my walls, unfurling a carpet and inviting me in.
“I want to play The Last of Us,” I said to Morgan abruptly, just a few weeks ago. He was surprised but extremely pleased. “You have to stay with me while I play, though!” I said, “I need you because I’ll get scared!” He agreed to the terms, he himself interested in seeing the story play out again, and was quite excited and encouraging of the adventure that awaited me.
What I discovered in the first menu had my heart leaping with joy and hope; not only did The Last of Us have an Easy Mode, but there were additional options to turn on that made the game even more accessible. Aim assist? Yes please!
This is a capture from my play through. Enjoy!
For the first time I felt like a Mature game was catering to the needs of a novice like myself. I was given time to familiarize myself with the controls, I could pause at any moment to collect my thoughts, make a decision, and calm my panicked heartbeat. The game saved constantly, so I wasn’t forced to replay the same part over and over and over from the very beginning of every combat scenario when I invariably died. Ammo and supplies were plentiful, in-game prompts directed me on where to go if I lingered in an area for too long (lost and confused, for sure), and the enemies were mercifully stupid.
The last time I was this excited to rush home and pick up a video game was when Breath of the Wild came out in March 2017. I couldn’t wait to jump into Joel and Ellie’s world, fighting for survival, exploring the vast post-apocalyptic future of the US, and watching their relationship transform and develop through each horrifying encounter. I nearly broke down at the start of the game when Sarah died – kudos to you for writing and performing something so heart wrenching – and I was choked up when Joel reunited with Tommy.
I was super proud of getting past this first moment without Tess’s help
The biggest twist in the game, though, the most visceral response that I had, was when Ellie encountered the cannibals. Perhaps it should have occurred to me that they’d exist in the universe, but I was blind-sided by the reveal. Who was responsible for writing David? Because I tell you, I couldn’t decide if he wanted Ellie as a daughter, a lover, or a meal and I. was. disturbed. I still am. Hats off to Nolan North for a truly depraved performance – the entire restaurant set piece had me disgusted and on edge.
I appreciate that you, Naughty Dog, used The Last of Us as an opportunity to explore the complexities of the father/daughter relationship. I have a challenging and distant relationship with my own dad, and I don’t often encounter media or entertainment that navigates it in a realistic way. When Joel says to Ellie, “You’re not my daughter, and I sure as hell ain’t your dad,” my heart absolutely crumbled into pieces, and I shouted angrily at the TV.
“Deal with your traumas, Joel!” I shrieked, feeling hopeless and sad for Ellie. She found someone who she trusted, who she thought cared about her, and who finally made her feel safe in a world of chaos and uncertainty. How could he leave her? Well, fortunately he did not, and I was relieved by their non-verbal agreement to forget that the conversation ever happened and to just keep pushing forward together. I’m not a fan of stubborn, stoic men, and so I greatly enjoyed Joel’s arc of gradually opening up to Ellie and allowing a parental relationship to form at last. I wanted them both to heal.
I can’t recall a time when I found myself so deeply and emotionally invested in a game’s story line. The Last of Us was like a book, meaty and raw, rife with three dimensional characters, relatable scenarios, and themes of love, loss, and growth that barreled straight into my heart. I’d like to play it again, but on the Normal Difficulty setting. I feel ready. I feel ready not only for this game, but for others like it. This has given me the boost that I needed, the surge of competence and joy necessary to break through the pitiful proverbial chains that bound me to the words of inane 14 year olds.
The game is full of emotional, thoughtful moments – source
So thank you. Thank you for creating an Easy Mode. Thank you for putting ammo and supplies everywhere so that I always felt prepared. Thank you for a male character I felt I could truly root for and care about. Thank you for Ellie being a realistic 14 year old girl, for creating a female protagonist that I love. Thank you for making Joel an absolute badass who can pummel the shit out of his foes, that way when I messed up shooting (which happened a lot) I could still take them down. Seriously, I loved the hand-to-hand combat, it was incredibly satisfying.
I cannot wait to play The Last of Us II.
With deep gratitude and affection,
x – happy beast
Upon completing the game on my own I decided that while Joel’s decision was morally ambiguous, he did do the right thing :V