Parenting in the Post Apocalypse: The Last of Us

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Over the winter, I played a succession of three video games that involved characters in a parenting or protective role: Fallout 4; The Last of Us; and The Walking Dead. And if parenting in today’s world is hard, it’s even worse once the world goes to hell.

Today I’m writing about my parenting experience with The Last of Us.

Spoilers for the game follow.

In the Last of Us, the game gives you a few minutes to get to know Joel, a single father, and his 11 or 12-year-old daughter, Sarah before they have to flee their home as the world falls apart in the face of a horde of zombies. Before 15 minutes pass in the game, Joel loses his daughter as she’s shot by a soldier trying to contain the zombie pandemic. The game flashes ahead 20 years to Joel living in the grim, squalid remains of Boston, which has been turned into something between a detention camp and protective sanctuary against the infected wastes beyond its walls. Joel himself is a changed man, still broken and angry over the death of his daughter. But very soon, he’s tasked with helping to smuggle a girl out of the settlement to a group that believes she’s the last hope to cure the cordyceps pandemic. She’s the only person to have survived being bitten by one of the infected. The girl, Ellie, is about the same age his daughter Sarah was when she was shot. For Joel, part of his resentment for his task must come from this clear reminder of his dead daughter. He has to protect Ellie, something he couldn’t do for his Sarah.

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Joel and his daughter, Sarah.

As the two journey across the country, facing a series of obstacles and threats, their bond grows and they become like father and daughter. The relationship heals the wound left 20 years ago with Sarah’s death.

The Last of Us presents the most traditional story of the three games. You have no real choice in how the story plays out. You have combat sequences that you play through, and how they go is up to you, but you just have to survive them so the story can proceed. The fights in the game are well done and demand that you use stealth to avoid getting killed. But to be honest, as the game went on, I got tired of scrounging supplies to upgrade this or that piece of equipment or skill and kill armies of the same people or creatures. It’s hard to believe Joel could take on that many people. The combat just goes on and on sometimes. I was more interested in continuing the story than the action portions.

Despite the lack of choice in the story, I found it moving. I knew most of the story beats; that their journey would complete Joel emotionally, and it was still emotionally effective thanks to good writing and voice acting. I think I was also in large part affected by empathy for Joel since I have two daughters. I couldn’t help but relate to him.

Finally, you reach your destination, the one group that has the resources and possibly the means to cure the pandemic that’s almost wiped out the human race. And I thought it might be over at that point. But then you find out the only way to find out the only way the group can discover why Ellie is immune to the virus is to kill her and dissect her. “Fuck that,” is Joel’s response as he sets out to rescue Ellie before it’s too late.

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Joel taking an unconscious Ellie from the hospital.

The cost for saving Ellie is that no cure might ever be found for the virus. Joel might have doomed everyone to save his surrogate daughter, but how could he not save her when he’d failed to save his own daughter. It was his shot at redemption, his second chance. Though Joel starts off in the role of protector to Ellie, by the end it’s clear that he needs her. (We see she can take care of herself in the one section you play from her point of view, and in the Left Behind expansion to the game.) She’s the one thing he can hold onto in a world gone wrong. Facing that world alone the first time nearly broke Joel. Facing the world again, knowing he’d let Ellie die just as Sarah had would likely have ended him.

But as good as the story was, it didn’t involve me as much as The Walking Dead. In The Last of Us, it didn’t matter at the end if I’d upgraded my skills or scrounged enough bullets. I was essentially a spectator to a story. As a father, I sympathized with Joel and wondered if I’d do the same, but I never got a chance to really explore that in the game.

Next week, I’ll write about my time with The Walking Dead. If you’re interested in the previous post on this theme, about Fallout 4, click the link to read it.

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