The Last of Us: Mature Storytelling in an Immature Medium

The Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB as it is commonly called, has been in usage since 1994. The Board was famously created as a response to so-called “mature” video games that were gaining popularity, such as the infamous Mortal Kombat series. The ESRB rates a game much like the MPAA does for film, evaluating which age group the game is most suitable for. The ratings range from EC (Early Childhood), to E (Everyone), T (Teen), M (Mature), and even the rarely-seen AO (Adults Only). Generally, it is accepted that, as one moves up the ratings, the games become more sophisticated and mature. It would seem that the M rating would be home to as many sophisticated stories as there were bloody shoot-em-up’s. However, for the vast majority of the games in this classification, it can hardly be the case. The developer’s ideas of “mature” either consist of forced tearjerkers, gritty protagonists that face no consequences for their actions, or some attempt at satire that fails to land.

This is why The Last of Us, developed by Naughty Dog, has been such a refreshing breath of fresh air in the industry. The game, following an older man and a young girl making their way through a zombie apocalypse, was heralded on release by both the community and critics alike for its fresh gameplay and compelling story. The gameplay was new and fresh. Joel, the main character, is no ace with his gun, as evidenced by the ever-present wobble on his reticle. He has to find alcohol and gauze in order to craft a first aid pack for himself after being shot or punched, and there is no magical healing force that wipes away the red from his eyes. His melee weapons degrade and break after only a few uses, which is fitting, considering that they are generally just random planks of wood or highly rusted pipes. Parts and tools must be found in order to upgrade a weapon, and that may only be done at a crafting table. Joel’s punches

Deaths are gruesome, but not gratuitous. They add more motivation to avoid seeing the character mauled

Deaths are gruesome, but not gratuitous. They add more motivation to avoid seeing the character mauled

are not fancy or refined; they are brutal and lacking any flash. The gore used is fitting, as only zombies have their heads explode, and a “Game Over” is excentuated by the grim reality of the death that awaits Joel. The gameplay helps to establish a man who is crafty at doing what he does but lacks proper training. Many games push entertainment over relevance, as noted by the one-man-army in Bioshock Infinite and the life of crime that Niko Bellic indulges in readily in GTA IV after coming to America to start anew. As time goes on, games get better about this, but the gap is still very evident. However, not all developers are stuck. It seems that, with their maturation, Naughty Dog is taking advantage of their medium by adding a dimension that no other medium can do: putting the player in the character’s shoes.

Joel's fighting style is a brawling, dirty flurry. It has to be for him to survive.

Joel’s fighting style is a brawling, dirty flurry. It has to be for him to survive.

By doing this, they also amplify the plot. The ending of The Last of Us has been credited as one of the most mature and hard-hitting endings in all of video games. Throughout the game, Joel is supposed to take Ellie, his young companion, to meet an underground rebellion group called the Fireflies to manufacture a cure to the disease causing the rise of the Clickers, the zombies of the world. However, he learns that, in order to find the cure, the Fireflies must kill Ellie by extracting her brain. Joel, after having lost one daughter at the beginning of the game, decides that he will not lose another, and kills the entire group to save her. He then refuses to tell her what happened, instead lying and saying that the Fireflies were no longer there. It ends on the bitterest of notes as Ellie asks Joel for the truth, but Joel sticks to his lie

The ending of the game is seen as one of the most mature in the medium, and leaves the player questioning the morality of the choice

The ending of the game is seen as one of the most mature in the medium, and leaves the player questioning the morality of the choice

Most games are lacking in one department or the other. This is not an indictment; video games are a young medium and still have a long way to go before they reach the storytelling capabilities of books, theater, and film. However, The Last of Us is one of the few that uses both to their full effect, crafting a tale that simply could not exist in the same capacity in another medium. The relationship between Joel and Ellie is so strong because the player is the one fighting to keep that girl safe. With a simple suspension of disbelief, he player can become a rough thug in the apocalypse who simply wants to keep his daughter safe. This is not a game that is rated M simply because of its violence or shooting mechanics. It is one of the only games that has earned its M rating based on the maturity of the story than the immaturity of its content, and stands as an example of what games can be as a storytelling tool.

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