//This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us
In my quest to play a bunch of good video games I missed over my college career, I finally played Naughty Dog’s masterpiece, The Last of Us. Now, this is definitely some well-weathered ground for in-depth analysis, so I want to talk about something that I remember being mentioned, but really struck me as I played the game: the lethality.
Much in the way I talked about how Prey really hammers home its concept of curiosity and exploration, it feels like the mechanics of The Last of Us are all laser-focused towards this theme of being forced to confront death. The story echoes this theme through every act, and our characters are defined by it. Joel spends the game dealing with his daughter’s death, and Ellie spends it dealing with the fact that everyone around her seems to die.
This theme is carried into the mechanics with gusto. While I was playing, I was surprised how many ways the player gets to instantly kill things. Between driving a shiv into someone’s neck, nailing them with a headshot, throwing molotovs and nail grenades at enemies, or just running up to them and strangling them, there are plenty of ways to just wipe an enemy right out.
It’s really the melee executions that hammer this point home, though. For comparison, look at this video of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate gameplay. This is a game so about murdering people that it’s literally the first word in the title, but look at the way characters die. Once they enter the assassination animation, they just sort of lie there and die. They don’t really resist, and a single attack results in immediate, mostly clean death.
Now look at this compilation of Joel’s melee kills in The Last of Us. Not only do these hits feel really weighty, but the camera actually adjusts itself to force you to look at whoever you’re killing who, more often then not, is frozen in a look of horror as they’re trying desperately not to be killed. The stealth choke animation is the worst offender, as the character blindly grabs around, trying desperately to stop choking to death but eventually falling limp.
These melee kills are fundamentally sort of unsettling. They take long enough, and angle the camera just so that the player is forced to confront the fact that Joel is really violently murdering this person (and, despite the fact that the game prominently features non-human enemies, more often than not you’re fighting perfectly healthy humans), and this person is really trying to not die. That goes doubly so in the sections where you play as Ellie, as her executions are much sloppier and thus, much more excruciating to watch.
This is one thing, but the combat in the game is designed to funnel you towards these melee executions, to force you into watching them. Ammo is scarce, so if you’ve run out of ammo you’re forced to perform these, and if you haven’t you’ll want to anyways to conserve ammo. Furthermore, while the game emphasizes stealth, this isn’t some Dishonored-style game where you can sneak past everyone without harming a fly. No, the stealth in this game serves only to allow you to kill more advantageously, taking on enemies one at a time and on your own terms rather than in big mobs. Ultimately, if you’re going to try and handle fights in the most advantageous way, staying alive and minimizing resource loss, you’re going to be strangling a lot of dudes to death, which means you’re going to be watching a lot of people struggle as they choke to death.
This learned behavior, in which the player is incentivised to kill people in the most violently personal way possible, ties back to the game as a whole in a couple of ways. For starters, it casts a certain light on the way Joel and, later, Ellie handle living surviving in this world, especially when the game presents examples of people who manage to survive without violently murdering everyone they meet. This, in turn, ends up serving as characterization in action: Joel’s personality and priorities are revealed as you see for what reasons he’s willing to commit violent acts, and Ellie’s process of growing up and becoming used to this world are visualized as she changes from naive teenager to gun-toting murderer (not that she’s unjustified when she really starts to spill blood).
The game also makes sure to never let these kills go unremembered. Characters frequently, and justifiably, attempt to kill Joel and Ellie after the two of them slaughter entire parties of the character’s friends and comrades, only to die themselves, leading to this sort of ouroboros of murder in which situations get decidedly worse because of how ruthlessly Joel and Ellie killed the last group of foes. An entire act of the story basically consists of a group attempting to get payback on Joel and Ellie for killing an entire hunting party of their friends and family, and while that group ends up being pretty thoroughly in the wrong themselves, it’s hard to say that their initial motives are unjustified. When a character refers to Joel as “a crazy man”, you end up agreeing with him on a certain level. By the time the end credits roll, Joel definitely seems like someone who needs to work some stuff out.
Because that is, in the end, what the entire game, especially the violence, is in service of: Joel. The entire game is a character study of Joel as he goes through this journey, and ultimately every part of his being is defined by that violence: his experience in the post-apocalyptic wilderness, his desire to protect those he cares about, his determination to finish his mission, his disdain for the military government, and his own inability to let go, are all shown to the player in every violent murder. By creating mechanical incentive for players to play the game in this ultraviolent way, the game forces players to both understand why Joel is this way, but also, to be sort of repulsed by his actions, a union of empathy and disgust that few other games can create.