You creep behind cover, you place the cursor on the head of the faceless enemy, you hold L1 and pull the trigger. The body ragdolls and falls dead. You've seen this animation before — more times than you dare to count. You are comfortable here. But this may be the last time you pull the trigger like that. The last time you kill a man. It might be.
Joel is the protagonist of The Last Of Us and he is old. His hair is ragged and greasy, flecked with gray; his skin pallid and wrinkled. Joel doesn't kill with the youthful exuberance of a half-tucked Nathan Drake, or the lumbering ultra violence of Marcus Fenix. Joel must stand still or he won't make his shots. Joel needs time to heal himself. Joel must hide and creep. Joel says little but bears the weight of those he has killed, the terrible things he has seen and done.
Decades ago; you imagine a sprightlier Joel. He carries a lighter conscience. Killing comes easy. Joel might have been Nathan Drake or Marcus Fenix in a past life. He might have been Master Chief, a silent killing machine with zero empathy or remorse. He might have been. But now, today, as the PS3 and the Xbox 360 trundles towards its last hurrah, Joel is the last of us, The Last of Them. He is the ragged, reluctant killer. Bone tired of shooting at enemies from cover; world weary — literally he no longer wants to engage with the universe he inhabits. Joel is the last man standing in a shootout we've endured and participated in for an entire generation.
Joel is the last of us.
Joel is a permanent fixture in the ruin of the world we once built; a testament to the technology that transformed our lives. Now it is our tomb. Skyscrapers that once soared effortlessly into a vertical vanishing point lean precariously on one another for support, crumbling beneath the weight of their own history. We are part of that history: a generation of gamers repeating the precise same mechanic, across multiple different games a terrifying amount of times.
In The Last Of Us you are guided by rubble. The linear paths we're accustomed to in games of this ilk are illumined by flickering lights, decaying brick work, collapsed ceilings. The broken way we play video games is sustained in a broken world, by a broken world. In The Last Of Us the zombie equivalent is a terrifying foe, but Joel is afraid of human beings — because they will shoot on sight. They are a brutal, hardened version of humanity: a horde of murderous Nathan Drakes who shoot first and ask questions later. As players our best option is to cower in fear, to sneak past a hundred versions of the players we once were: cold hearted killers that will put a bullet in your brain because we literally had no other choice.
Video games are a product of their time, and the technology of their time. In that sense all video games are allegories. But The Last Of Us is the ultimate game of its type: a video game that renders its own tropes dead or in the slow process of dying. Naughty Dog didn't invent the idea of the jovial confident killer in Nathan Drake, but they perfected it: a virtual Dorian Gray pursuing a life of murderous violence without consequence. Joel is the portrait in the attic, wearing the weight of our debauchery in every wrinkle and scar.
Joel, like the video game he inhabits, is a crumbling relic in the process of dying. It is visible in every step he takes, every shot he fires. Ellie is young, she was born into the crumbling world and takes it for granted, but Joel is a product of a once functioning world that is now torn apart and useless.
The Last Of Us is the last of them. And Joel is The Last Of Us.