By Kate Coleman
2013’s hit PlayStation exclusive The Last of Us is a survival horror game that follows the journey of Joel, a world-weary survivor of a cordyceps infection that has turned most of the world’s population into walking corpses. Through Joel, the player is tasked with guiding a young girl named Ellie across the ravaged remains of the country so that her unexplained resistance to cordyceps might be engineered into a cure. Donna Haraway’s definition of Cyborg Theory asserts that the line between organic life and technological identity is blurred, and that the latter may in fact be truer than the former. This is frequently the case in videogames where players are encouraged to assume the identity of the player character, often as a form of escapist role-play. The Last of Us, however, takes a different approach, utilizing multiple perspectives to re-frame its narrative and create purposeful distance between the player and their fictional avatar.
There is a documented tendency in fiction for protagonists to appear justified in their actions more so than other characters simply because they receive the bulk of the narrative’s attention. Video Games tend to facilitate this phenomenon more easily than other media due to their interactivity. Because the player is performing the actions, they may project themselves into the proceedings. The narrative becomes theirs not that of the protagonist, and any potentially dubious subtext in the events of the story becomes harder to see.
The Last of Us plays with this notion. Throughout the story, the player commits an array of violent acts against others through Joel, finally culminating in a decision to forsake the future of humanity by stealing Ellie away from the people who would use her to create a cordyceps vaccine. Having witnessed Joel’s backstory (in which his daughter is brutally killed) and participated directly in Joel’s actions, the player is sympathetic to his motivations above all else, using them as rationalization for the killing and torture he commits. However, the final sequence of the game switches player control from Joel to Ellie, who, as it turns out, had been more than willing to give her life in the name of finding a cure. From her perspective, the player sees Joel at a distance for the first time and realizes the selfishness of what he’d been doing. Like Joel’s final statement to Ellie, the heroic framing of the player’s actions throughout the game is nothing more than a distorted lie. Haraway’s notion of cyborg theory as an extension of identity is turned on its head, and the player is severed from the game’s virtual space.