Our latest episode is here! This time we look at how Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us uses motifs and doubles to communicate important aspects of Joel’s character to the player. And giraffes. Lots of giraffes.
A transcript of the video is included below the cut.
This episode of Push to Smart contains spoilers from the Last of Us. That’s it this time. You’re welcome.
In our last episode we discussed how The Last of Us navigated imagery and tropes of the horror genre while attempting to attain the cultural prestige of film. While the gameplay mechanics and over-reliance on genre tropes keep The Last of Us from being the next No Country For Old Men, the compelling story, well written characters and engaging performances set it ahead of the pack for gameplay narratives.
The game relays its story and characters through careful use of motif and doubles. As an example, we’re going to examine how the game uses these images to communicate important aspects of Joel’s character to the player
JOEL: “Need I remind you what is out there?”
TESS: “I get it”
An arresting scene takes place when Joel and Ellie find a tower of giraffes in Salt Lake City.
It’s a simple scene that re-establishes Ellie’s drive to see their journey to its final destination while also expressing Joel’s reluctance. But if we look at the image of the giraffes in this scene and put it in context of previous and future instances of its use we can start to unpack why this scene
is so emotionally affecting and significant to Joel’s character arc.
The first giraffe we see is a stuffed animal in Sarah’s room. It’s an easy symbol to dismiss as it seems like such an innocuous addition to one of the first playable areas of the game, but it is in fact the first moment to imbue the image of the giraffe with meaning. As the image of the giraffe is repeated, the meaning behind its appearance becomes more and more apparent.
We see stuffed giraffes in both the toy store with Henry and Sam as well as the nursery in the water plant. These are two settings created specifically for children but which instead draw attention to their absence. “Where the giraffe was once easily dismissed as just another toy in a child’s bedroom, after the game lets its apocalyptic fungus fester, the giraffe reminds us of both the innocence the world has lost,
and the daughter that Joel has lost.
In one of The Last of Us’s less subtle moments, Joel sweeps an unconscious Ellie into his arms and runs straight to the abandoned pediatrics wing. As the music swells and the shouts of the Firefly troops fade away, his flashlight illuminates the mural of a giraffe on the wall, right by the door that will lead to his escape. Even if we’re not consciously aware of it, the mural neatly summarizes everything the giraffes have come to represent:
the unnerving absence of children and Joel’s personal loss.
The giraffes tie Ellie and Sarah together in Joel’s story, but they are not the only parallel. The way in which Joel carries Ellie through the hospital is a clear callback to the way in which he carries his own injured daughter during the game’s first chapter.
The game opens with Sarah giving an overworked Joel a watch for his birthday, only hours before he loses her forever. After the narrative jumps 20 years ahead, we see that he is still wearing his watch. It could be written off as a small design detail if Ellie didn’t comment on it. She is the only character to do so, even as Joel subtly calls attention to it by touching it at the mention of his daughter. This inducts Ellie into an exclusive,
personal circle previously occupied by Joel and Sarah.
Optional conversations provide further means to draw connections between Ellie and Sarah. For example, when exploring cities like Pittsburgh, players will see billboards promoting the Twilight-esque film, Dawn of the Wolf. At this point in the game, players might recall
seeing posters for the film in Sarah’s bedroom. This is an excellent piece of world building, showing how civilization as we know it fell apart that day twenty years ago, and optional conversations with Ellie infuse it with extra meaning by giving the player insight into Joel’s relationship with his daughter through these films.
At this point, Ellie still doesn’t know about Sarah, but the significance is clear to the audience. We are being reminded of Joel’s role as a father before he became the ruthless survivor we see before us, and we can imagine these affections being extended to Ellie in the future.
Like in the beginning of the game, which opens with players exploring the house not as Joel, but as Sarah, Joel and Ellie’s final escape through the hospital is immediately followed by the final portion of gameplay, not as Joel, but as Ellie. The daughters bookend Joel’s story, giving the player the opportunity to view Joel not as a playable protagonist-subject–an extension of themselves–but as an object of scrutiny.
This scrutiny comes about from the way in which The Last of Us uses all of these symbols to communicate the idea of fatherhood. In previous episodes, we discussed the way parenthood is usually portrayed in games. A hero teaches his daughter how to survive before making a
noble sacrifice for a greater cause. In our discussion of Bioshock Infinite, we discussed how the game subverted this trope. The Last of Us also plays with the idea of the heroic father through the combined doubling of Ellie and Sarah, as well as Joel with another would-be parental figure for Ellie, Marlene.
With Marlene, the game proposes two separate images of parents: the one who is prepared to make sacrifices for the greater good (what we usually see in games), and the one who views the greater world as a threat to themselves and their family. Marlene insists that dying for the cause is what Ellie would have wanted, a sentiment to which Ellie’s final speech lends credence. Joel pointedly–and–violently rejects this, literally shooting his double point blank, and selfishly possessing Ellie as his own.
By following this confrontation with a scene as Ellie, we have the opportunity to literally see Joel through different eyes, knowing now where he stands. It also forces us to confront how our view of Joel might have been different hours before when we first played as Sarah. Where we spent our entire time as Sarah looking for Joel–looking for protection, we now follow Joel almost reluctantly. through the use of symbols and doubles,
we have seen how fatherhood has affected Joel’s behavior and his values. While the game doesn’t explicitly moralize this decision, the final frames are suitably uncomfortable.
That wraps up our discussion of The Last of Us–at least for now. We were haunted by giraffes, and now we want to know what symbols struck you during your playthrough? Let us know in the comments, and join us at the figurative water cooler as we discuss our new favorite episodic game, The Wolf Among Us, and make our best guesses at where it could possibly be going.
Written and Edited by Jaylee and Stacey
Music by DJ MapReduce
Footage from The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, The Walking Dead, and The Wolf Among Us