This one’s been months in the making. But first: a story.
Yes, I love heroes. I love good guys -- and as you can tell, that includes some of the most pure-hearted, noble guys that fiction has to offer. Even so, I recognize the issues and the common complaints. “He’s just so boring!” “He’s too pure!” “Look how American he is!” As much as I hate to admit it, there’s a real problem that the squeaky-clean hero has to overcome that some of the anti-heroes out there (or even characters in between) don’t. It’s a matter of trajectory. Of scope.
As an example -- from a guy who really doesn’t know enough about comics to use said example -- just look at Captain America. In his 2011 movie, he started out as a guy willing to jump on what he thought was a live grenade to protect his comrades. Where the hell do you go from there? A lot of character arcs are about people who start off with obvious flaws or issues -- an unwillingness to put his or her life on the line for a good cause well among them -- and overcome them to stand as the heroes their tales desperately need.
You know the drill. The coward becomes brave. The loner becomes friendly. The bastard becomes noble. But Captain America doesn’t get to go through that, and by nature he suffers for it. So basically, some people can buy into his brand of goodness wholesale, and follow along with a smile as he throws his mighty shield. Others aren’t quite so easy to please; they need someone with more complexity. More change. More struggles.
I think that’s why, in terms of video games, we get more guys with shades of gray. And that’s why we have someone like Joel from The Last of Us.
But I think that’s the wrong mindset. I actually think we need more stuff like this:
Before I go any further, there are a couple of things I need to say. First: this post is going to have some SERIOUS SPOILERS, so proceed at your own risk. Second: this post is also going to have some SERIOUS OPINIONS, most of which go against the grain of gaming culture’s general consensus. But that game has been out long enough for us to be able to voice our thoughts without fear of repercussion -- and if you’re reading this, then I imagine that you’re sensible enough to not want to cram a javelin down my throat and chain me to a submarine. I’ll be respectful, and I hope that those reading this will do the same. Okay? Okay.
If you’ve read my stuff before, you may know that I didn’t like The Last of Us. I can understand why people like it, but for me? It didn’t click. It felt as if the game was at least twice as long as it needed to be, the messages and themes wore out their welcome in the first hour, the subtext was as subtle as a brick to the face, the “tension” mentioned in practically every review on the planet was nonexistent, the gameplay was functional and little else, and it took the efforts of Left Behind to make me like or care about pretty much anyone in the cast.
And yet, the games I’ve experienced since have made me more receptive toward TLoU. It’s NOWHERE NEAR PERFECT, but it’s still vastly preferable to a lot of other stuff out there. It’s just that I would never, ever play it again, because it would make me go on another adventure with Joel…who, in the absence of a last name, I’ve decided to dub Joel Grumpybuns. You can probably guess how I feel about him.
Put down your pitchforks, people. I’ll come back to him in a minute. But first, I need to introduce his competition.
At the start of Kamen Rider OOO, Eiji Hino is pretty much a penniless drifter -- and a weird one at that. Dressed like a pauper and thankful just to have a pair of clean underwear for tomorrow, he’s a nice guy who gets thrown into a conflict well out of his depth. The Greeed -- alchemy-born creatures based on animals and powered by “Core Medals” -- rise after hundreds of years, and wreak havoc for the sake of regaining their missing Core Medals and becoming complete…which, incidentally, will make them even more powerful. To facilitate that, the Greeed create Yummies, monsters who seek out humans and help fulfill (and manipulate) their desires to create Cell Medals, which en masse will also give them more power. Given the amount of damage one well-placed Yummy and the manipulated human du jour can do, stopping them is probably a good idea.
The trick is that one of the Greeed -- Ankh, who at the start is just a creepy red monster arm -- goes rogue to seize the power of the Medals for himself. But being just an arm, he can’t do much on his own. Luckily, Eiji just happens to be at the right place at the right time, so Ankh decides to use him as a stooge to beat his enemies for him. As such, Eiji goes from a guy caught by the police wearing nothing but boxers to Kamen Rider OOO (pronounced like “owes”). And so begins the duo’s whirlwind adventures, many of which are resolved with liberal amounts of dive kicks.
So as you can guess, we’ve got two fighters in the ring this time. In the red corner, we’ve got Joel Grumpybuns, the bearded survivalist who well before game’s end becomes a walking armory and pals around with a girl who doubles as the potential savior of the human race. And in the blue corner, we’ve got Eiji Hino, a goofy-as-hell superhero who dons an animal-themed suit to fight alchemic nightmares and play guidance counselor to pretty much everyone he meets -- which puts him at odds with the monster arm that takes over a dying detective’s arm just so he can have legs of his own. Place your bets, people. Who’s gonna win it?
The answer is neither. Neither one wins. Objectively speaking, Joel isn’t better than Eiji, and Eiji isn’t better than Joel. They’re from different worlds (quite literally), and both the characters and their creators were out to accomplish different goals with their stories. That in mind, I have to say that in my opinion, Eiji is the better character. I’m not just saying that because I’m a Kamen Rider fan (and OOO was actually the one that got me into Kamen Rider in the first place), or because I like squeaky-clean heroes. I’m saying that because Eiji accomplishes more than Joel ever could, even if Naughty Dog decided to ruin everything and give TLoU a sequel. Side note: Naughty Dog, please don’t give TLoU a sequel…even though you’ve long since started teasing it and IGN isn’t helping with the “secret-keeping”.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s focus this post on Mr. Grumpybuns.
Given how much love TLoU has gotten, it almost feels like a waste of time to go over Joel’s particulars. But for the uninitiated: he’s a self-proclaimed survivor who finds himself neck-deep in a zombie apocalypse one night. In the midst of a desperate escape, his daughter gets killed, and Joel begins a downward spiral over the course of twenty years. When the game proper starts, he’s a callous and jaded man who’ll take on whatever job will keep him alive and the peace (such as it is) in place in his zombie-filled world. But it’s not long before the plot comes knocking on his door, and he’s entrusted with carting the genetic miracle Ellie across America.
Joel Grumpybuns makes it clear almost as soon as he’s able that he’s not a good guy -- a survivor first and a decent human being second. In that sense, he’s a cut above a lot of other gaming leads; whereas other characters like Aiden Pearce get carte blanche “reasons” to go on murder sprees while pretending to be the hero, TLoU is at least honest enough to push Joel as a less-than-altruistic person. It’s just that, as these things tend to go, he forms a bond with his surrogate daughter, and she manages to bring out the best in him (from a bit of levity to the mere ability to trust others) over the course of their journey.
Now that I’ve got some distance from the game, it’s hard to heap too much hate on Joel. I can’t say that I agree with every choice he (or his creators) made, but I can partly understand why he did the things he did. “Endure and survive” is the mantra he lives by, and in a lot of ways he’s right to engage in such violent acts against the people he meets on a regular basis. He lives in a world where diplomacy will always fail, and he’s more likely to meet a bullet than a new friend.
Maybe that’s why Ellie becomes so precious to him -- because there are so few people he can trust, it makes the few bonds he can make that much more precious. And yes, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some good moments in the game when they’re actually together. (Or any scene that puts emphasis on animals; there’s just no beating the giraffe scene.)
Here’s the thing, though: even if I can defend him, I still can’t like him. Not because he’s a bad man, though; it’s because ultimately, I find him boring.
I’ve always thought that the main character is the one that makes or breaks a story -- the one who defines it, sets up ideas, and resolves the plot beats. And sure, Joel Grumpybuns does manage that; the problem is that I don’t find it all that interesting. I mean, I just think about the stuff that happened in the game, and then I find myself saying “Really, guys? This is what everyone’s excited about?” I get that it’s a zombie story that’s not about the zombies, which is fine. It’s about the characters, and the journey, and the bonds. But it all feels so flimsy, and I can’t help but blame Joel for that.
I get that he’s a damaged man, and that the world has changed him for the worst. But he’s not a compelling character to me; he feels more like some tour guide who hates his job than an actual member of the cast. He’s dry, serious, and focused, but the tradeoff is that he’s got no charisma -- nothing to make him stand out from any number of survivors who might be running the same trip off-camera. His relationship with Ellie helps, but that’s because Ellie actually has a spark to her. She pulls the weight of the duo, the story, and the game. Joel just punches and shoots his way through it.
This is the problem I have with characters like Joel, and plenty of other anti-heroes: they don’t give a shit about anything. That doesn’t make them better or cooler because “they’ve got nothing to lose”; it makes them dull. A character that doesn’t care about anyone or anything almost immediately loses his or her stakes in a plot or a conflict. Or to put it a different way: a Superman that doesn’t care about saving people might as well not be Superman at all (or simply the Man of Steel variant).
I mean, imagine what sort of person Joel would be like if Ellie wasn’t in the game. He wouldn’t stop to look at the remnants of the past. He wouldn’t have anyone to push him out of his comfort zone. A lot of conversations would be pretty bare-bones, assuming he had them at all. Basically, he’s not a complete character without Ellie, in the sense that there would be no game (let alone a good one) without her around.
As is the standard, his character arc is about how his new charge impacts his life and makes him a better person -- how he goes from a low to a high. Well, in theory; in practice, I posit that Joel is the same ol’ Grumpybuns he is at the end of the game as he is at the start. Remember, at the start of the game (after the prologue), he’s a self-serving survivalist who’ll torture people to get what he wants. And at the end of the game he’s -- drumroll please -- a self-serving survivalist who’ll torture people to get what he wants. The key difference is that he cares about Ellie now, but even then it’s hard to praise him. Arguably, Ellie ends up filling the same role as Tess did in the opening hours; Joel substitutes one gun-slinging partner for another, with the added bonus of replacing his flesh-and-blood daughter.
For a game that’s won so many awards and accolades -- and a game I was excited for, once upon an E3 -- I expected Joel to offer up something more than what actually got offered. I guess at the end of the day he’s not a bad character, and his game isn’t bad; it’s just so by-the-numbers. Safe. The most interesting wrinkle about him is that he likely (if not definitely) needs Ellie a lot more than she needs him, but I feel the same way about the so-called brick master. She raises the game up, but he tugs it way, way down.
Maybe I’m being crazy here, but I felt like TLoU really dragged its feet. I mean, I went into it expecting to see the blossoming relationship between Ellie and Joel Grumpybuns -- but it took way longer than it needed to. It was like I spent half the game waiting for them to deepen their bond, and for the elder to actually appreciate the presence of the junior. Imagine my surprise, then, when Joel seems unwilling to think of Ellie as anything less than a package he has to deliver -- that just happens to talk -- well into different seasons. I know that arguments are inevitable in relationships, but why are these two still chewing each other out when lives are on the line?
Yes, I know that there are good moments in there like the driving scene, the horseback riding, and even Joel’s impromptu lesson on teaching Ellie how to work a rifle. But the number, length, and quality of those scenes are disproportionate to the hours spent moving junk around, killing dudes and zombies, and traveling in silence. This is why I said that TLoU needed to be half as long, or at least more focused; the good story beats get hamstrung by the gameplay beats that practically segregate the two.
I guess the crux of my problem is “Can I care about this character?” All things considered, I can’t. I don’t dislike him because he’s an anti-hero, though; I also don’t dislike him because he’s a hard person to sympathize with. In my eyes, he only becomes an interesting character at the end when he chooses to kill the Fireflies to save Ellie -- and even then, the ending didn’t have that strong of an effect on me. “Oh no, this character is doing something selfish and unorthodox in terms of main characters and video game leads! How…uh…exciting?” I didn’t expect that ending or its aftermath, but I didn’t find it all that shocking. It just came off as another event.
For my tastes, Joel Grumpybuns is too simple of a character. Too direct. Too even. He lives in a world where killing is a viable (if not preferable) option, and commits to it -- at the cost of offering up anything different. He builds a relationship with Ellie over the course of practically a year, and while appreciable, it still feels insubstantial -- partly because Ellie is the only person we can expect him to have a meaningful conversation with. Despite being the main character of the game, it feels like anyone with a small armory and a thick enough sonar-beard could take his role -- and they wouldn’t have to have so much baggage. And even that baggage isn’t very compelling after a while-- not in the face of a Rider installment with a grim examination of isolationism, acceptance, and even depression.
When I finished TLoU way back when, I pretty much declared that I hated Joel Grumpybuns. I don’t think I’m as down on him as I used to be (in light of abominations like Aiden Pearce or Machina Kunagiri), but I still can’t say I like him. I appreciate that he showed plenty of gamers that games can have well-realized characters, but Joel is one of the LAST examples I’d name. There’s just so much better out there, even within the medium. But I guess to help illustrate my point, I’ll have to gesture toward something outside of it.
So. How does the star of one of 2013’s biggest hits lose to a guy who does this?
Yeah. I've never been more ready for death.
Yo, thanks for reading. Like what you see? Then feel free to share this post with your friends and family...or use its sheer length to torture your enemies! And don't forget: you can help make Cross-Up even better (or good in the first place) by using the donate button at the top of the screen. Watch me sell out super-hard! It'll probably rule!