***WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS for The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite, and the film Taxi Driver. MINOR SPOILERS for Tomb Raider, Max Payne 3, Assassin's Creed III, and Spec Ops: The Line.***
In many ways, The Last of Us eerily recalls the film Taxi Driver. Both Martin Scorsese's 1976 magnum opus and Naughty Dog's latest are centered around deeply disturbed men suffocated by insecurities and troubled preconceptions as to the true nature of man. Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle is a Vietnam war veteran who finds himself simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the seedier side of New York City that he's forced to experience working his titular job. He's moralistic but horribly misguided; his detestation of the cold, sometimes abhorrent world around him is reasonable on some level, but this hatred forces him on a descent into offensiveness, aggression, and sociopathy.
Though the setup is quite different, the core of Joel's character is strikingly similar. The first fifteen minutes or so of The Last of Us send Joel's world spinning into ruin. A fungal virus that turns people into rabid zombies sends his hometown into an expected panic. Joel must kill his infected neighbor, abandon his home, and go on the run with his brother and his daughter, Sarah. In the midst of this frantic escape, however, Sarah is killed, and when the game jumps forward twenty years into the future, we see that Joel has dissociated from most everyone around him. In place of true human connection, Joel has a singleminded focus on surviving amidst an unimaginably harsh post-pandemic existence, and we soon learn that he subsists by trading weapons, and generally being as tough and cold a killer as can be.
But their generally bleak, uncaring worldview is only the start of Travis and Joel's similarities. Of much more significance is the driving factor that leads them to act upon their violent nature in the most shocking of ways; both Travis and Joel foster a strong attachment to a young innocent, a light that shines through the grit and grime around them.
Partway into Taxi Driver, a young prostitute named Iris hops into Travis's cab, pleading for a ride away from her pimp, Sport. A moment of hesitation keeps Travis from complying, resulting in her being dragged away by an angered Sport. It's immediately clear, however, that Travis finds some sort of goodness in her that he sees in no one else, and from then on he makes it his mission to convince Iris to get back to her parents.
Joel, meanwhile, is forced into circumstances that require cutting a deal with the Fireflies, a group devoted to seeking a cure for the infection that has devastated the Earth's population. His task is to escort Ellie - a teenaged girl whose surprising immunity to the virus inspires hopes for a cure - crosscountry to the Fireflies' medical center for further research. Though Joel initially treats her coldly, he eventually bonds with her, and she rather obviously begins to fills the familial void left by the death of his own daughter years before.
The frightening ways in which Travis and Joel's simultaneous hatred of people, yet strong attachment to a sole young innocent ultimately culminate is what makes these characters so sickeningly striking. Bickle, on the verge of carrying out a planned assassination, suddenly changes his target and instead goes after the crooks that manipulate and abuse Iris. The resulting confrontation remains one of the most shockingly violent sequences in film. Joel embarks on a similar rampage when he learns, upon successfully bringing young Ellie to the Fireflies, that she is being prepped for a surgery that will inevitably end her life. Enraged, he goes on a murderous march through the heavily guarded hospital to reach his psuedo-daughter, mercilessly killing nearly everyone in his path.
While they are unexpected and utterly brutal in their own right, Travis and Joel's final violent outbursts are made especially horrifying by the fact that some remote semblance of heroism can be salvaged from their bloody acts. Both these men ultimately direct their violent nature towards protecting a young person that would otherwise be left to cruel exploitation. Ellie would have been sacrificed outright in desperate hopes of creating a vaccine, though it isn't known for certain whether the deadly surgery would have resulted in such a cure in the first place, or whether she was even aware she would have to die as a consequence. Iris, meanwhile, would have remained in the destructive spiral of sexual, physical, and substance abuse brought upon her by Sport.
But given the hours of insight into the corrupted minds of these men that precedes their final, would-be heroic acts of violence, this righteousness ultimately rings hollow. We know that Travis Bickle's vigilanteism is underlied more by a simple need to lash out at the society he's so clearly incompatible with than a desire to act selflessly in the service of others. And while it's clear Joel cares deeply for Ellie, we also know that his bid to rescue her is ultimately self-centered. His main motivation in the game's final stretch is to avoid enduring the trauma of losing a daughter yet again, and his willingness to supercede Ellie's wishes in order to not confront his own insecurities as a failed protector, no matter the cost, illustrate this tragic emotional greed.
Indeed, Joel is the Travis Bickle of video game protagonists - a man whose troubled worldview and horrific deeds may be seen as noble, but only if one strains to perceive them in such a way. But while a character depicted in such an unyieldingly stark and disturbing manner as Bickle is somewhat of a rarity within the realm of film, characters as brooding and sociopathic as Joel can be seen many times over just within the past year's lineup of games:
Spec Ops: The Line stars the delusional Captain Walker, a man whose Machiavellian determination and unyielding desire to play the hero culminates in a shocking downward spiral into utter madness; BioShock Infinite's protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is so broken that his transgressions span multiple realities and identities; Max Payne 3 sees the iconic titular character trying to reconcile his brutishly violent ways with his duty to guard an affluent family, a conflict that leads to an expectedly questionable conclusion; Assassin's Creed III's eighteenth-century protagonist, Connor Kenway, retains a marked emotional distance between himself and almost everyone else he encounters to instead focus on upholding some rather extremist ideals and kills most who would oppose him.
The list goes on but the point is clear: video games that deign to present serious narratives have little in the way of heroic, likable, or even remotely sympathetic protagonists. They are instead usually utter madmen whose good intentions shatter under the weight of the immense bodycounts they inevitably tally. And though this fixation on depicting and having players take control of broken, brutal men might well come from the honest narrative aspirations of games writers, I have to consider just how much the mechanics that define modern AAA action experiences inform characterization.
BioShock Infinite, for example, really only features one fleshed-out and pervasive gameplay structure - shooting racists. There are of course, a number of mechanical embellishments that add some density to the experience, but flourishes like skylines, vigors, and tears ultimately exist to simply add variety to the act of shooting racists. That's not to say that engaging in this core mechanic isn't fun, but this singleminded focus on gunning down enemies is inarguably not conducive to establishment of a sympathetic, well-meaning main character. In fact, Booker's psychopathy is mandate - BioShock Infinite is already on shaky ground in terms of selling its story, but it absolutely would not have succeeded in conveying a serious, edgy narrative if its outlandishly violent gameplay loop couldn't largely be written off by establishing that its hero is an assuredly terrible person.
Indeed, insanity and immorality as an odd but functional mechanical justification that allows involved narratives to propel ever onwards without the audience feeling put off are used to varying degrees of subtlety by every game I've mentioned so far, and many more. There are, alternatively, two other common approaches action-heavy games have thus far taken to coupling their bloody mechanics with some sort of plot. This first option is to make the plot as fun and absurd as the gameplay itself; games like Borderlands 2 and Blood Dragon create a goofy atmosphere that can effectively sell you on the idea that you're playing a hero despite delivering carnage on a massive scale simply because it makes sense within the warped, fun logic of their campy narratives.
The other alternative is to simply ignore the influence mechanics have on narrative and hopelessly try to tell a serious story with a protagonist who can get away with remaining sympathetic while violating every last Geneva Convention without so much as a second thought. This, as you might imagine, can never work, and the latest Tomb Raider is a prime example of why that is. Crystal Dynamics' reboot admirably tries to give Lara Croft a harsh but ultimately triumphant origin story, but the game's unfaltering focus on killing people shouldn't give rise to a hero, but rather a psychopathic mass-murderer.
Yet the game's writing never addresses this glaring ludonarrative inconsistency, and as a result, players will have to choose to either accept the game's shoot-and-loot systems as action game convention and ignore them to enjoy the narrative, or look past the story and revel guilt-free in all the shooting, collecting, and upgrading. The creation of meaning in games is at its most effective when storytelling and mechanical engagement work in tandem, so it goes without saying that this conflict is far from ideal.
A number of the many game stories focused on tortured men and their violent ways have been exceptionally compelling despite the numerous and oft-repeated tropes that they entail, and the sheer fact that this storytelling strategy exists clearly shows that the medium has grown much more cognizant of how closely interrelated game structures and game narrative must be in order to make a resounding artistic statement. But this type of story will inevitably get old very fast. Taxi Driver is such an interesting film because it's one of very few to be centered around a character as singularly reprehensible as Travis Bickle. Even games as brilliant as Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us risk becoming decidedly boring if we are inundated with yet more of these brooding leads who are expressly formed from the desire to tell a believable narrative within the restrictive confines of the AAA action title.
What is required instead is a dramatic rethinking of how systems and narratives in games can be changed to suit each other in better, more dynamic ways. I want to play a hero, a truly good, admirable person, but unless the industry reevaluates its artistic choices, I may be forever left to walk in the shoes of a monster.