| Arts & Culture
Video Games Is HBO’s “The Last of Us” Anything Like the Games?
For all of its commitment to diverse representation, the game was fundamentally another apocalypse story about the reproduction of white patriarchal violence.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the zeitgeist of 2022 is that it was the year in which Good Housekeeping started talking about the end of the world. Lizz Schumer, a senior editor there, wrote an article about her decision not to have kids because of global warming: “We worried about the kind of world they’d inherit, which will almost certainly look far different than the one we grew up in.” By “different” she didn’t just mean rising housing costs, she meant biker gangs in bondage gear: “bringing a child into this world,” Schumer wrote, “would doom them to an existence that looks more like Mad Max: Fury Road than Sesame Street .”
Her fear is instructive, not just because it’s widespread, and not just because we’ve reached a point where we’re talking about apocalypse-based family planning in a magazine best known for interior design and casserole. It’s instructive because it tells us something about what we mean when we say “the end of the world.” We mean the end of a future that reproduces the past “we grew up in,” and meant to give to our kids. It’s no wonder then that apocalyptic storytelling is a largely conservative genre, full of old white ex-sheriff dad types going around killing zombies and men in leather to protect “our” way of life. Who belongs in that “our,” who’s within its circle of protection, is flexible. No wonder that back in 2016, when Trump gave his inaugural address, the vision he painted of America was a vision of apocalypse, of “rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” Because the logic of most apocalypse stories is that same logic of violent nostalgia, of rounding up everything we might be willing to kill to make ourselves great again.
So, that said, I’ll forgive you if you aren’t terribly excited about HBO’s The Last of Us , another post-apocalyptic adaptation that has dragged its gray and blue color palette to the small screen. N ot that the original wasn’t beautiful—the video game’s gorgeous setpieces of decay were what drew me to it in the first place, back when it was released in 2013. And The Last of Us is even queer. I don’t mean only because of the zombies, though the game’s cordyceps-colonized bodies do tend to explode into something like a slurpy-looking Georgia O’Keefe painting. The game and its sequel are full of hat-tips to queer culture. It’s got pregnant lesbians, fat gay men, trans kids, ex-evangelical queers. There’s chosen family; there are polycules; hell, there’s a gay girl playing guitar wearing a flannel with a fern tattoo. And in spite of its angry-white-man of a protagonist, when it first came out for Playstation 3 ten years ago, The Last of Us was billed as a different kind of action apocalypse game. Neil Druckmann, who created the game for Naughty Dog, saw Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 movie Children of Men while working on another title. In The Last of Us , Druckmann set out to combine the narrative elements of a big-budget Hollywood dystopia with the interactive play space of a AAA game: there would be complex relationships, stealth-murder, and the whole rainbow of humankind. Yet for all of its commitment to diverse representation, The Last of Us was fundamentally another apocalypse story about the reproduction of white patriarchal violence. In the two games that make up the franchise, the only future humanity can realistically achieve is “the one we grew up in”—the one in which the nostalgia of straight white men is more important than the future of the world.
Here’s some plot (and a lot of spoilers): The game begins in Texas at the start of an apocalypse in which a mutated cordyceps fungus has turned most Americans into ravenous cannibals. Joel, the protagonist, loses his eleven-year-old daughter Sarah early in the chaos when she’s shot by soldiers as they’re trying to escape their town. He spends the next twenty years doing terrible things to survive and getting steadily more nasty and alcoholic in his unresolved grief. When we meet him again he’s a smuggler in army-fortified Boston. Marlene, the Black female leader of a resistance group called the Fireflies, asks Joel to smuggle a teenage girl named Ellie to some scientists across the country. Ellie’s barely post-pubescent body carries immunity to the fungus, and Marlene is hoping that if the immunologists and neurologists she’s gathered in Salt Lake City study the child, they can deliver a cure.
Because players are so implicated in Joel’s choices, it’s powerfully upsetting when, at the end of the game, the things he does are deeply wrong.
The Last of Us is what the reviewer Yatzhee Croshaw calls a “ ghost train ” game. Players take paths that are essentially predetermined, and by following the path—completing all of the tasks and defeating all the necessary enemies—they are rewarded with a cutscene in which the characters develop and the narrative moves forward. Players move Joel around, craft health kits and weapons from scattered supplies, choose whether to sneak by their enemies or stab, choke, or shoot them—but none of these choices matter to the outcome of the narrative. The ghost train has only one track. That’s what Druckmann wanted: a game that would implicate players in Joel’s choices without giving them the power to change anything.
As Joel, the player murders their way across the country, through literally hundreds of enemies both living and undead. Of course, he also learns to love again. Ellie tells jokes from her jokebook, nestles under his outstretched arm. In the presence of this child, Joel gets to feel like a father. He wears a watch his dead daughter gave him, broken on the night the world changed. In a cutscene, he watches Ellie take in a sunset. Ellie’s never seen the world that ended, and she marvels at the beauty of toppled buildings and factories like tombstones. To her it all seems impossibly new. Joel glances down at his watch’s cracked face, at the reminder of the time when he was a father. We can see him begin to believe that he can get his daughter back.
In a way, of course, all sad-old-man apocalypse stories are ghost-trains. Time and narrative action are linear in The Last of Us , and they’re also linear in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road , in Children of Men , in Sweet Tooth , in The Walking Dead . And in all these stories, too, a sad white man travels across the hellscape of America, trying to protect a child. Think of “the man” in McCarthy’s The Road , traveling onward with his son until they finally find another family with a daughter near the age of “the boy.” Think of Theo in Children of Men making his way towards Bexhill-on-Sea to get his own pregnant surrogate daughter to some scientists in a boat called “Tomorrow.” Like The Last of Us , there are no good alternatives to the classic hero presented in these crumbling worlds. If there’s a future in stories like this, it is always represented by children, whose survival and reproductive potential provides the meaning for the father’s life. The thing that’s salvaged and redeemed in the angry-old-father apocalypse is this endless train of begetting, of futures that look exactly like the past. Joel’s broken watch is about a pause in that journey. Ellie helps him to pick up where he left off.
And yet, because players are so implicated in Joel’s choices, it’s powerfully upsetting when, at the end of the game, the things he does are deeply wrong. When the player finally gets Joel and Ellie out to Salt Lake City, they find Marlene there waiting with the Fireflies, along with what must be the last neurosurgeon-immunologist left alive. The catch is that the fungus is intertwined with Ellie’s brain and Marlene has realized Ellie must die for the cure. She hasn’t come to the decision easily—in the mythology of the game, Ellie is also her surrogate daughter—but she’s the leader of a liberation movement and she’s used to grieving losses in the fight for a more survivable world. Ellie, for her part, has already told Joel that she doesn’t mind dying as long as her life gets to matter. Joel recognizes neither Ellie’s consent nor Marlene’s concern for the world. He only cares about getting his dead daughter back and chooses his nostalgia over everyone else’s survival. He blows away every last freedom fighter in the hospital including the neurosurgeon, he murders Marlene in cold blood, and he carries Ellie, unconscious, to “safety.” When she wakes up and asks him what happened, he lies.
The ending devastated fans, who argued endlessly about the ethics of Joel’s actions. Many fans were devastated again when a minigame prequel, released a few months later, made it clear that Ellie’s character had always been queer: “When I was writing [the first game] I was writing it with the idea that Ellie is gay,” Druckmann said in an interview. Fans struggled to revise their idea of Ellie—mostly because they found her attractive —but also because they saw her reproductive capacity as a way back to making Joel good. Some of those people who’d defended Joel’s actions as morally righteous revised their beliefs now that Ellie’s queerness meant she might never bear kids. As one fan-wiki commenter put it: “If the immunity can be passed on, and she refuses to, then I guess I have to reevaluate the ending . . . I think it would be better to scoop out her brain after all.”
That’s not quite how I reacted. My favorite part of The Last of Us is the moment between the game and its inevitable sequel, when the fiction of the violent father’s goodness falls apart and for a moment it seems we’ve come to the end of the line. If Ellie is queer, if she refuses to be his replacement daughter, anything might happen; she might be free to make something new. Talking about The Last of Us on the podcast Queers at the End of the World , the games scholar TreaAndrea Russworm, Nat Mesnard , and I imagined what Ellie might choose for her future. She could, for example, join a queer survivor commune. She could use her immunity to make cordyceps art installations or fight for zombie rights; she could join the remnants of the Fireflies. A portal could open up in time, Marlene could step through, safe, and she could resume her life’s work and grow old with her comrades around her, Ellie’s mutated cordyceps immunity entwining in their brains.That’s the thing that queerness offers at the end of the world: new pathways of kinship, different investments in the narratives of the past, other ideas of inheritance. But anything, we thought, anything would be better than Ellie taking on Joel’s legacy, becoming the post-apocalyptic game protagonist, and reproducing the violence of her past.
But that is the trouble with The Last of Us . It offers us glimpses of a different future, but that’s never the track it takes. I’ll spare you the plot of the game’s sequel, 2019’s The Last of Us: Part II . Suffice it to say that Ellie does turn into her surrogate father, that the player does get to murder hundreds of people from inside her queer, butch skin. If you insist on saving your children at the expense of the world, the game suggests, then the world they inherit is one in which they must choose, again and again, your own violence. A world in which our fathers never die, they just inhabit us like a parasitic fungus, their grief and hate and insecurity driving us toward the next kill.
The game’s saving grace is that it has become what Professor TreaAndrea Russworm, in her work on Blackness in apocalyptic games, calls a “community of discourse.” The richness of the game’s storytelling, as well as the intense misery players experience as a result of playing, provide a catalyst for meaningful conversations about the power we give to white male grievance and the failure of “diverse” representation in games. So even though the game makes it seem as if there’s only one possible choice, I know I’m not the only one who wants things to be different, to stop telling the story of the bad white man, to stop telling the story of Black people getting murdered to protect white folks’ idea of being good, to stop telling the story of queerness as a site of suffering instead of the place of change and power that it can be.
But in this story, the one we got, Marlene dies and Ellie grows up to be a video game character just like her father. So I don’t want the authentic adaptation of The Last of Us that HBO promised, though I’m afraid I’ve gotten something even worse. What makes The Last of Us different from all the other stories exactly like it is that the game portrays Joel as a sociopath, a move which exposes the pretense that the angry white father’s desires will ever, except by accident, serve anyone else. As the scholar J. Jesse Ramirez has noted, from the game’s first scenes it troubles the “us” in The Last of Us , showing how for Joel that means only himself—even Sarah, Tommy, and Ellie are just projections. He’ll protect them insofar as they help him hold onto his idea of reality. In the game, he is not your loving dad. Joel’s obsession with reproducing Ellie as his dead daughter annihilates any chance for the rest of “us”—Ellie included—to live. Unfortunately, so far that appears to be the only thing that’s changed in the adaptation. The Joel we get is gentler, conspicuously doesn’t moan “don’t do this to me ,” when Sarah dies, cares deeply about his little brother, sells pills instead of running guns. Meanwhile, the casting choices—a Latinx actor to play Joel, a mixed-race Black actor to play his daughter—seem to me to be designed to muddy the connection between Joel’s violent entitlement and his whiteness. There’s a lot more show to go, of course, but the only thing worse than Joel shooting Marlene in cold blood as she lies begging on the floor would be a show that thinks we should relate to his choice.
My expectations are not high. Referencing the filming of the HBO adaptation during COVID-19, the show’s director, Craig Mazin, seemed to think the lesson of the last three years is how we all cling to what we had: “Everybody imagines that we all become the Road Warrior,” he told the New Yorker ; “We do not! Nobody’s wearing those spiked leather clothes.” Instead, Mazin said, we do our best to recover what we used to have. And in a way, he’s right. We did school online, we did work online, we watched our friends get married, have birthdays, and die on Zoom. Sometimes we didn’t have running water, had to go to work, didn’t have a way to change things. Sometimes we ignored the plague so hard that it killed us. But that isn’t all we did.
The zombie apocalypse is not just about what survives. It’s about everything we hope will die, and stay dead.
Outside the borders of the stories we tell ourselves about dystopia, there’s elsewhere. There’s a real pandemic, a real apocalypse in which we didn’t always abandon each other. There’s a decentralized network of Black queer activists changing everything through a grief that doesn’t only destroy. There’s the fact that not everyone whose kid gets murdered by the state turns around and abandons the world. Some things changed. We learned we didn’t want to commute anymore if we didn’t have to. We walked around our houses with nobody misgendering us and realized that we wanted our bodies to change. We learned we were disposable to our bosses and we started unions— some of them in game design . We poured out into the streets in our millions after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We developed networks of mutual protection that are still serving us to this day.
“All organizing is science fiction,” writes Walidah Imarisha, which is to say, not every post-apocalypse is focused on the past. Some of us wore leather with spikes, and we liked it. Some of us want everything to be different forever now. Will HBO adapt that into its story? Is it interested in the possibilities that might branch from a future without Joel? Or is the network looking for a new epic of nihilism, a way to reconcile itself with the forgetting that can only reproduce what brought us here? The zombie apocalypse is not just about what survives. It’s about everything we hope will die, and stay dead.