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How Video Game ‘The Last of Us’ Explores Trauma Through Its Characters

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The Last of Us,” a cinematic narrative-based video game published by Sony, was an exhausting, powerful story. Besides the horror of this post-apocalyptic world, it introduced me to Joel and Ellie. When the game was over, I remembered making some shocking decisions. I said to myself, “I never want to play this game again,” because the theme was brutal. However, “The Last of Us” intrigued me of the beautiful father and daughter-like relationship between Joel and Ellie. Their bond and their traumas made me go along their journey together.

When these two characters met, they were distrusting of each other, but as the story progressed, they formed a powerful bond together. Before Ellie, Joel lives with his daughter, Sarah. Their life together was normal until, one night, a terrifying pandemic occurred. Joel and Sarah were on their way to escape from a group of infected people, but his daughter died in an incident. Twenty years later, Joel became a ruthless smuggler. He kills people both deadly and innocent to survive and Joel can be intimidating. Ellie is a 14-year-old carefree teenager living in a post-apocalyptic society. She’s naïve and caring, but her mouth can get her into a lot of trouble. She’s best friends with a girl named Riley who, deep down, loved each other. Ellie lost Riley after being ambushed by a group of infected people inside an abandoned shopping mall. Ellie’s attitude reminded Joel of Sarah, and they formed a bond. Ellie had learned to adapt to this cruel world. Behind her tough attitude and cheerfulness, Ellie didn’t want to be alone. She lost many people in her life.

One theme “The Last of Us” exemplified is the painful process of trauma. Losing Sarah traumatized Joel over the last 20 years. When someone asked Joel about his past, he refused to talk about it. The trauma made Joel into a smuggler and became more brutal from the violence he committed and lack of remorse. The dialogue in-game hinted Joel also contemplated suicide. Above all the things he did, Joel struggled for a long time, surviving. Ellie experienced trauma when she encountered a “friendly” guy named David who helped her to give medicine for Joel, but things got ugly when she found out David wanted to kill Joel after Joel slaughtered his men. David came close to killing Ellie, but she without hesitation used his machete and killed him. From that act she committed, Ellie became quiet, more distant, and not carefree. The part of her experiencing loneliness scarred her.

The purpose of “The Last of Us” is to make people feel Joel and Ellie’s process of trauma. All the things the player has to do — from stealing supplies, being forced to kill, or make unmerciful decisions — will reinforce others to feel the pain of what Joel and Ellie have to do. It was draining when I had to shoot or strangle enemies.

After finishing the game, I still have those haunting memories. When I have to make some unmerciful decisions, I almost turn off my PlayStation 3 system. I was not ready to get used to it. I thought to myself, “Why did I just do that?” The journey was painful. I hesitated to play as Joel because every punch, every gun he shoots, every person he kills or tortures — the violence he committed said a lot about him. A part of me, though, felt for Joel’s pain. I felt sorry for him ever since he lost his daughter. When I was playing as Ellie, I felt scared for her. Ellie was alone to take care of Joel when he was ill. It forced her to stop David from finding Joel and she had to take matters in her own hands. Ellie surviving through the winter was one of the most terrifying gaming experiences I played. She had no real weapons and no ammunition. Ellie had to rely on hiding, running away, and using her only weapon — her knife.

Seven years later, I still believeThe Last of Us” is one of the most unforgettable, draining and powerful experiences I’ve encountered in gaming. “The Last of Us” took me to a world I’ve never seen before while telling a story I would never forget. This game is not just a game; it was more of a cinematic masterpiece. After surviving the first part, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know what will happen to Joel and Ellie in “The Last of Us: Part II,” since it’ll be releasing in June 2020. I watched the trailer. I’m even more terrified for Ellie. She’s no longer the carefree kid I used to know. Part I was about love, but Part II “will be about hate.” What will happen to both Joel and Ellie? Their journey in Part I was only the beginning. I may travel to the edge and across the country and back and may endure and survive, but for Part II, I’ll see.

Image via Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

Originally published: June 6, 2020
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