As a close look at both games, this post contains major plot information from Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us. It is recommended for those who have already played both games to the end.
Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us are perhaps the two most critically acclaimed games of the year thus far, and for good reason: they both have deep, emotionally moving moments and are ripe for critical discussion of their characters and themes. Especially interesting is to look at them side by side and see the surprising number of similarities. Some are just fun things to notice, while others are definitely worth talking about, partly because the two games’ approaches to these shared themes also highlight what makes them each quite different experiences.
Rough’n tough male protagonists who first push the daughter-figure away, and warm up to her over time until he would do anything to keep her
This is a common theme in our culture’s narratives, where the tough-guy protagonist keeps the childish character firmly outside his emotional walls at the start, but slowly starts to care about her deeply. So why point it out if it’s so common in general? Well, it’s an interesting similarity when contrasted with another recent game about fatherhood: The Walking Dead. In The Walking Dead, Lee immediately cares about Clementine and takes on the fatherly role, whereas both Booker and especially Joel are resistant at first. In Infinite this becomes very interesting when you learn about how complicated Booker’s relationship with her was before. In The Last of Us it’s interesting because of Joel’s obviously close (but also distant, note Sara’s card for Joel where she says he isn’t around much) relationship with Sara in the game’s prologue. The way Sara’s death changed him becomes clear in his early response toward Ellie, and the situation also makes the game dramatically interesting as he slowly but surely begins to care very deeply for her as a daughter-figure.
Troy Baker: Booker and Joel
This is just a fun one: Troy Baker is an incredibly prolific voice actor, particularly in the video game industry. And for good reason: he brings a lot of life to the characters of Booker and Joel. And quite different life to each of them – while I noted the similarities between Booker and Joel above, they are still quite different characters, and Baker believably portrays them both.
A woman of color who leads the resistance against the oppressive “Man”…
…who ends up being, arguably, just as bad as the oppressive man when she does something horrible that shocks the main character and the player.
This is a very problematic theme in the two games. I would argue it’s far worse in Infinite, where Elizabeth beats you over the head with it, repeatedly saying things like “she’s just as bad as Comstock! They’re perfect together!” It comes to a head when Elizabeth kills her to save a poor little white boy in danger. Outside this eventual portrayal of Daisy, the game is very conscious of deeply-ingrained racism, evidenced most clearly by the placement of the “White Man’s Burden”-style painting covering the wall in the headquarters of Columbia’s version of the KKK. But then later you get this portrayal of Daisy Fitzroy, a moment where a black man beats a white man to death because he got a job he wanted (intended to shock the player), and the fact that the player is rewarded for being the heroic white man who saves the interracial couple from being killed, instead of the narrative giving them any agency over their own fate.
The Last of Us is problematic in a similar way, but I think it takes a more interesting approach to the issue. Yes, Marlene decides to sacrifice the life of a teenager, in a manner which is bound to shock and anger the player (potentially encouraging prejudiced beliefs in the player) – but if you get to the end of the game and actually think about it, you realize that Joel is probably a far worse human being than Marlene. You eventually realize that you and Joel just slaughtered everyone who was trying to save the human race, and since Joel then lies to Ellie about what happened at the very end, it’s abundantly clear that it was for purely selfish motives. Marlene tells him that she would want to sacrifice herself for the sake of everyone else, but Joel doesn’t take that into consideration. He sells out humanity so that he can be with someone he cares about, in comparison to Marlene, who sacrificed her own feelings for the sake of humanity. She’s no saint, but neither is Joel – what may seem to encourage prejudice gets complicated at second glance.
Protagonists who play guitar
Another fun one. You may have found the scene in Infinite where Booker plays the guitar as Elizabeth sings “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” In The Last of Us, Joel’s guitar can be seen near the TV in his and Sara’s house in the prologue, and Joel and Ellie talk about playing the guitar later in the game. It’s also impossible to miss the beautiful music throughout the journey, which is most prominently played on the guitar.
The Damsel in Distress
The Damsel in Distress is a widely used trope in our culture, especially in video games (explained and examined very well in Anita Sarkeesian’s videos here). In both these games the daughter-figure is in danger, and the male hero must save her: in Infinite it’s when Elizabeth is being tortured and future-Elizabeth says you need to go and save her. In The Last of Us it happens twice, after Joel wakes up from his illness and when Ellie is taken away for surgery. Infinite perpetuates this trope, while The Last of Us complicates it in both situations.
During the first use of this trope in The Last of Us, Joel pushes himself physically and uses violence to save the damsel in distress. But when he gets there, she has just managed to save herself, stabbing predator David in the face repeatedly. She didn’t need his help to defeat the enemy – but it’s clear that she’s emotionally traumatized by the situation. Joel is then there for emotional support, in a very emotionally moving scene. Does this encourage problematic gender roles because it’s a violent situation that traumatizes her? Or does it subvert them because Joel ends up being the emotional support (typically the domain of a mother) rather than the expected heroically violent hero?
Now, in the finale of the game, Ellie actually is herself helpless – she’s unconscious throughout the whole situation. But as I mentioned in the above section about race, Joel’s actions in retrospect are not good, heroic deeds. He murders people for his own selfish reasons and then lies to her about it. Again we face a conundrum: is this problematic because Ellie had no agency throughout this entire ordeal, or is it a useful way of highlighting the inherent problems of only the man wielding agency when the girl is in danger?
Either way, it’s fascinating, and it’s one of the things that makes the game worth talking and writing about. Both Infinite and The Last of Us are remarkable in certain aspects, doing some things very well that few if any games have done at all – but of course, nothing is perfect, and it’s important to closely examine the potentially problematic messages our media offers up for consumption. It helps us be aware of the problems and still be impressed by things well done.
What do you think about these factors that are prevalent in both games? Are there any others that you noticed?