The Empathy of Us

With the last episode of The Last Of Us having aired last week, it’s been fun to see major media outlets like the New York Times join in on a discussion that’s been happening in the video game world for nearly ten years. We’re going to ignore, for the moment, the Times’ insipid approach to the original game in the article, belying a lack of literacy in video games that reads like a critic describing a voiceover monologue in a film as imitating a book’s internal narration (though, trust me, I could go off on how major media refuses to engage with media like games and comics as if they hold real weight). Instead, let’s go back to that decade-old discussion: Did Joel do the right thing?

The Last of Us climaxes with Joel choosing to save Ellie’s life and potentially doom humanity. It’s a decision that’s been a long time coming, as we’ve watched the gruff Joel warm to the teenage Ellie, going from seeing her as cargo to a surrogate daughter. Following this, he lies to her about what happened, shielding her, but also creating a gulf between them. Should Joel have let Ellie be killed to maybe create a cure? Or was he justified in killing a band of resistance fighters and a neurosurgeon the wanted to vivisect his surrogate daughter?

All this time later, I still don’t know. But the resurgence of the discussion is testament to how well the show managed to capture that moral ambiguity that the game excelled at. The viewer, as the player did, must now wrestle with the fact that the character you’ve empathized with for the last several hours just became the villain of someone else’s story (the second game dives into this, and I can’t wait for the second season of the show to do the same).

Like the game, the show doesn’t really cast judgement on Joel’s actions. The deliberately-hollow sound design of the sequence helps accentuate the tragedy of Joel’s choice and the close-ups of bullet-ridden bodies keep the brutality at the forefront. But we’ve come to care for Ellie over the show’s nine episodes; even if we don’t agree with Joel’s actions, we understand them. That understanding of monstrous actions is a fascinating thread to pull on — are we complicit in Joel’s massacre?

That’s the part of the game that is probably hardest to translate to the screen. When watching a television show, we’re passive participants in the story, but a game, by virtue of playing it, gives the player an explicitly active role. Much of the violence in The Last of Us is at your hand, though, the game never lets it become a power trip. As a much younger version of me wrote way back in 2013:

The Last of Us will never let you glibly take a life. Whether if it’s you as Joel sneaking up on a sobbing Infected — are you executing her or putting her out of her misery?— or Ellie swearing as you blow a man’s head off with a shotgun, The Last of Us will not let you forget the consequences of your actions. You will wound a man and fire the killing blow just as he begs for his life and exclaims he has a family.

You still care for Joel in the game since he’s your avatar to explore the world — you’re literally walking in his shoes. The adaptation hints at Joel’s capacity for brutal violence throughout, occasionally showing you hints of it, even as it encourages you to empathize with him and like him. So when he shoots a neurosurgeon in cold blood and lies to Ellie about it, you have to wonder, do you still sympathize with him? And what does it say about you that you do?

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