Note: Potentially spoilery discussion of The Last of Us
Your recent post on cutscenes made a good point about how that one long ‘The Last of Us’ cutscene you describe (siiiigh…poor, doomed, Henry and Sam) worked with/against your expectations as a player vs. what your expectations would have been as a movie-viewer to provoke specifically game-related tension. You’re right that the scene would have read differently to someone watching a movie, who might be emotionally involved but would have no expectation of personally playing a role in the outcome, than it did to us as players, expecting at any moment to be called on to do something.
The particular helplessness of not being able to even gesture at effectiveness, not even as you say, by hitting square to keep someone from biting your neck or whatever, when you’re accustomed to being able to do this, was a really interesting use of the game as a narrative medium.
It was, which is why I think the folks that like to bash this game by saying “it’s all cutscenes” don’t get it.
Because, really, Tomb Raider had similar cutscenes, they just had the occasional “hit square” bit. I mean, let’s face it, those “hit square” bits were not really instances where you could fail. Unless you decided the cutscene was a good time to take a break and get more chips, that was going to move things along. But it was there, and it made you feel like you had some agency in the situation. So by NOT giving you the feeling that you had some agency, when you expect to, that’s cool.
I also was kicking around the scene (haven’t played more, got the flu or some reaction to the flu shot this weekend, fun) in my head and wondered if the fact that Henry and Sam are black matter. And urban. They’re from a city. So there’s more to Henry not wanting Sam to be affected to the world. He doesn’t want Sam to become a violent person. I don’t know if it was coincidence that when Sam dies, he is basically acting out a racist cliche from the 30s: that of the young black man “preying on” a young white woman. Hell, he’s lying on top of Ellie, grunting and drooling. He’s become a cliche, and Henry couldn’t stop it. And if we take that there’s some statement on race and raising young black men as opposed to raising young white people, what do we make of Henry’s last words being “It’s your fault” to an old white man?
Dunno. A thought, though.
Interesting thought about how race plays here. I agree that what you’re describing might be intentionally working with our cultural stereotypes, and probably Joel’s, but Henry and Sam are both too young to have grown up in a world where ‘urban’ is code for “oh the horror, scary black guys!” to white people.
Would Henry really be concerned with whether or not he and Sam are cliches from a society that doesn’t exist anymore?
I mean, undoubtedly there could (probably would) still be racism and racist stereotypes in a collapsing society, but unless I’m forgetting stuff, we haven’t seen much evidence to suggest that color lines are a big enough part of peoples’ interactions that they’d cause this level of concern. Granted, we haven’t seen much about race at all prior to Henry and Sam (Marlene? a few hunters?), and we also don’t know what things look like where Henry and Sam came from.
Of course, maybe we don’t see it because Joel and Ellie are white and even after the apocalypse, one of the perks of whiteness is not having to notice racism. Why would they know, if they’re not traveling with any black people?
This is another potentially very interesting angle that we can pretty much only speculate about.
It’s true that this ‘urban’ code might not be current in Henry and Sam’s world, but then, this is a piece of art. So I wonder, is the specter of a black man lying on top of a white girl while grunting and drooling there because a) it’s designed to provoke a get reaction in people watching or b) it shows some underlying bias on the part of the white dudes who made this game (conscious or not? I’ll go with not, because I’ve seen no allegations that these guys are Klansmen). It’s also rather interesting that this scene, lying on top of Ellie, etc., comes after this black dude and this white girl are…. flirting? Making it clear they like each other? That we have some sort of interracial “taboo” that ends in an image designed (or not) to recall the irrational fears of the past. Just makes go hmm.
But there ya go. If we can harp on the way females are portrayed….. This seems intentional to me. Not to portray Sam in a racist way, because I don’t think the message here was “black people prey on white girls,” not at all. But good sci fi is metaphor, and something tells me that they were trying to make a statement about race, and our issues with it surviving whether we know it or not. And I think the obliviousness of Joel, the old white dude, who seems shocked that anyone would think this was his fault is also intentional.
“How can you blame me for this outcome? I like black people. I was chatting with you about harleys. I’m cool.” Yet….. the game never lets Henry “forgive” Joel for….whatever blame he sees.
Says the old white dude.
Hm, yes…so Henry teaches Sam to be polite and ‘non-confrontational’ not to reassure people in HIS world, but people in ours? Or hell, theirs too, assuming that the police power structure has carried over. How many times do black people tell us that even the most casual interaction with the cops is a whole different thing when you’re black? And the inhabited cities are basically military/police enclaves now, as far as we can tell.
OK, I take it back, it’s entirely plausible that cops/soldiers are just as likely to be trigger-happy around black people in the post-infection future as they are now, and that Henry, like parents/guardians of black kids today, has done his best to teach Sam how to interact in the most nonthreatening manner possible with white guys who have guns. Especially old white guys, who are probably known to have all kinds of old-fashioned prejudices brought forward from that semi-mythical pre-infection world.
And Henry’s accusation comes from rage and grief that even doing everything right, even being helpful and nonthreatening and proving repeatedly that he and Sam are not those ‘scary black guys’ old white guys are afraid of, he still lost his brother, and Joel let it happen.
WAS it Joel’s fault? As you described, as a player you might choose to save Ellie first. I don’t remember doing that (I’m not a very effective sniper, so I just shot at everything I thought I might hit, regardless of whom it was attacking), but JOEL would almost certainly do that. Right? Even though Joel knows that Ellie is immune, so she, unlike Sam, could potentially survive being mauled. Maybe Joel (not us as the players, but Joel as a character) could have chosen to protect Sam, but didn’t make that a priority.
Realistically it’s still not Joel’s FAULT, really, he didn’t leave a door open to let the infected into their hideout or anything, but could he have done more to help Sam? Probably.
Henry obviously doesn’t know that Ellie is immune, so his accusation feels kind of unfair, because Joel was only prioritizing ‘his’ kid the way Henry would prioritize Sam, but you can’t blame Henry for not really worrying about ‘fair’ when he’s just lost his brother, his only family, the person he’d dedicated his life to protecting.
“It’s your fault!” — we joined up with you and this happened. You’re the ‘authority figure,’ the old white dude with guns and a history of grim experience and the appearance of knowing what you’re doing, and you didn’t help us: you let Sam get infected.
Another “don’t trust anyone” message? Never join forces with anyone?
Considering the first time Henry meets Joel, he says “That’s quite a left hook you have” and Joel says “Well, I was trying to kill you” they did get off on that hostile foot. It’s SAM who tells Henry “He’s not one of them.” Take that for what it is.
But there’s another wrinkle: Sam doesn’t die of the fungus. Henry shoots Sam. So Joel didn’t let it happen, nor did Joel shoot (indeed, Henry shoots at Joel to stop Joel from getting a gun). So the “fault” here is “You made ME shoot him,” or “I had to shoot him because of something you did/didn’t do.”
I did choose to save Ellie, and I think Joel would have, too. And, while you know rationally she is better equipped to survive, she’s still YOURS to protect, at least in your head. I mean, let’s face it, if your kid is drowning next to some other kid, you’re damn well going to pull your kid out first. You’re not going to assess whether the other kid can’t swim as well or not. Irrelevant. You don’t choose. You instinctively save the kid you have the responsibility to.
That being said, if you see the two kids, and the other kid can’t swim as well as yours, but you save yours letting the other kid die, that parent will likely not understand. That parent will say “how could you do that knowing MY kid wasn’t as equipped as yours?”
But then, that’s not a great example because it’s safe to assume that Henry didn’t KNOW that Ellie had a much better shot at surviving. She wears long sleeves, and there’s nothing in the game that inferred that Joel or Ellie said anything. So Henry couldn’t say “hey, she was going to be ok.”
Joel had just braved life and limb (and died three times by my count). What more did Henry want?
And Henry DID prioritize Sam. He left Joel for dead. Yeah, nice that he pulled him out of the river, but before that he took off running with Sam and left Joel with the humvee.
Yeah, I’m not saying Joel could have actually saved Sam, but he could have tried harder than he did, simply because Sam was not his top priority, and therefore he did not try as hard to save Sam as he did to save Ellie. Not that he SHOULD have–as you say, you save your own kid from drowning–but I think maybe this is supposed to kind of hit at that irrational part of you that feels you should have done more, no matter what you actually did.
Also, we’re back to failing children: Joel and, more importantly, Henry couldn’t save Sam. The people who should have protected the child couldn’t do it: by the time they even realized he was in danger, all Henry could do was ensure that he was the one who killed Sam to prevent him from becoming a monster.
I don’t think Henry really has a legitimate claim that it’s Joel’s fault, but I cut him a lot of slack for lashing out with that in this moment. He’s probably deflecting his own guilt (he’s the one who Sam really depended on, HE let Sam down more than Joel ever could have), and the fact that the child he was protecting is dead and the child Joel is protecting is still alive must be a hard thing to face. So I don’t feel that the accusation is justified, but I think it emphasizes that this is another kid Joel couldn’t save: another kid that the people who should have protected him couldn’t save. (We cannot save our children!)
Sarah’s death wasn’t Joel’s fault, either, but I bet he blames himself for it. He may be too embittered these days to bother with blaming himself for things he couldn’t help, but Henry blames him, and you and I as players at least wonder if we should feel guilty about it.
That being said, Joel didn’t apologize, not even in that “I’ll say sorry if you don’t shoot me” way. Henry: “It’s your fault,” Joel: “It’s no one’s fault.” So he doesn’t even give lip service to the fact that he could have done more, even with a gun pointed at him. So he obviously doesn’t have that irrational part.
What I am glad about is that Joel didn’t have to kill Henry. There could have been a struggle for the gun, or killing Henry in self defense or something. Glad they didn’t go there.
An interesting way to go would have been to have Ellie shoot Henry to save Joel. But then, that’ll come later, won’t it? Won’t it?
We do wonder if we should feel guilty. I do. But I wikied it, which ruined it, cuz I learned that he was gonna die anyway, even if you saved him first. Shouldn’t have done that. Would have been better not knowing, even if I really would have known, as this is a pretty linear game.