Salvaging Cliche in The Last of Us

A while back (twenty minutes ago as of the writing, but this is scheduled to post way later) I wrote about how Ellie’s first kill in the Last of Us serves as an excellent example of taking a cliche that used to be a compelling depiction of the human experience before being driven into the ground and salvaging it, and that I could write an entire post on that subject. This is that post. Also, that scene is really compelling even on its own but is also really  frustrating to leave off on, so here’s the payoff a couple of scenes later. We aren’t talking about that second scene, I’m just posting it so that people who’ve never played the game but did just watch Ellie’s first kill aren’t left hanging.

The cliche we’re talking about is the “rookie in his first battle vomits after his first kill.” It’s a tired old cliche, and yet also a real thing that actually happens to a lot of people. It makes perfect sense to want to depict this if you have a character who kills someone for the first time onscreen (or onpage),  but we’ve seen the rote version of this a million times. It’s so well-ingrained into our consciousness that Ellie references the cliche in the scene. She knows what Joel, as the grizzled old veteran who can barely remember the last time killing a stranger upset him in the slightest, is supposed to say in these situations. There’s a script, here, and if you follow that script, the only people who will appreciate are actual fourteen year olds in post-apocalyptic war zones who’ve just killed someone for the first time in their life. This is probably not a significant portion of your target audience.

The problem with most “hero’s first kill” scenes is that they are simulacra, copies of copies with no direct connection to the original experience they are trying to convey. Even ones based on good versions of the scene, like Ellie’s, are still stumbling around blind for what parts of that scene are unique to Joel and Ellie’s character arc and what parts are a near-universal human reaction to killing another human being at close range (where “close” here is defined as “close enough to make out the specific guy you’re killing and confirm that you killed him” – how close that actually is depends as much on what kind of scope you’re looking down as on how physically proximate you are).

There are three ways that the Last of Us scene gets away from the dull and stilted simulacra. The first is by going back to the original human experience instead of relying on the tropes of fictional versions. The second is by subverting some part of the cliche version. The third and perhaps most important is that the use of the scene and its subversion are done in service to Ellie and Joel’s character arcs.

I don’t know for sure, but I strongly suspect that Ellie’s scene involved the writers doing some actual research into how people respond to this, for a couple of reasons. First of all (and I’m drawing on my own research for this, which may or may not be perfectly accurate but is probably the same material the Last of Us writers would be referencing), some kind of nausea is common, but actually throwing up only happens in some cases, not all of them. Second of all, Ellie has a moment of exhilaration at having won the fight that is very commonly described amongst those who had an emotional reaction at all, but usually absent in fictitious depictions, probably because a naive examination suggests having “yay, I won” immediately followed by “oh, God, I killed someone” doesn’t sell the “war is Hell” vibe as well as just the second part on its own. But, look, people are exhilarated at victory because they don’t want to die, and removing that in order to try and make your hero look more noble is ripping out a core part of the experience.

As I said earlier, I don’t know for sure if the Last of Us writers got here by actually going back to research how soldiers or other combatants actually reacted to their first kill in a war zone, but I strongly suspect they did, and in any case someone who did this kind of research would get similar results. It makes sense to base your fiction in previously successful fiction to a degree, because direct report of experience won’t necessarily inspire good description (the people reporting their experiences probably aren’t writers), but that should only be a starting point. It’s fine to say “I really like those ‘trauma of the first kill’ moments, I’ll add one into my story,” but at that point you should be researching what that experience is actually like as well as how other writers have conveyed it.

The second thing that the Last of Us did to make their scene stand out was to subvert expectations. I mentioned earlier that Ellie even points out that expectations are being subverted, not in the sense of lampshading, but just because she knows how this scene is supposed to go, and how it’s actually going is far more callous and hard on her than the cliche. Sucks for Ellie, but that’s great for the scene. Likewise, Ellie feels the need to sit down and says she feels sick, but she doesn’t actually vomit, and she recovers pretty quick, at least to the point that she can stand up again. The cliche is to actually vomit and get reassured by the grizzled veteran, but in the Last of Us Ellie pulls through her wave of nausea with her lunch still on the inside and is criticized by the grizzled old veteran for getting involved.

I said earlier that the third point, the way the scene interacts with Joel and Ellie’s character arcs (which we’re getting to in a bit), is arguably the most important of the three. That’s not because it’s competing with the second. It’s difficult to tell whether drawing on the human experience and not just previous fiction or using the scene to advance the character arc of its characters was more important, but both of those are definitely more important than subverting audience expectations. It’s totally fine to play a scene completely straight if that’s true to your characters and to the human experience you’re portraying. Derailing a character arc because you want to subvert a scene is a terrible idea, and to the extent that you should seek to actively subvert the usual script for a scene, it’s in little things. Ellie is nauseous but doesn’t vomit, which is a subversion of the norm with little impact on the rest of the scene. In fact, it spends less time dwelling on the usual theme of the scene – that killing people is an extremely stressful and frequently traumatic experience – to move right along to its character beat.

Those character beats are the third point which makes the Last of Us scene stand out. The scene isn’t just there because every post-apocalyptic story with an inexperienced character needs to have one. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if Ellie had killed people before. She’s in the post apocalypse, sometimes you have to waste a fucker when you’re thirteen and she gets the whole thing out of the way early. The scene was included because there was a tension between Joel’s refusal to let the inexperienced Ellie help at all (for a whole mess of reasons I won’t get into now) as part of the early arc where Joel learns to let his guard down a little and treat her like an actual person as opposed to a UPS package he needs to deliver to the other end of the continent. That scene is actually the turning point for this arc, where Joel realizes his unwillingness to let Ellie fight for herself is unreasonable, although the Last of Us is too subtle to let it happen as a dramatic moment of revelation or whatever. Joel sticks to his earlier position on autopilot, even past the point where it’s remotely reasonable to do so, and then in the next cut scene (after a few minutes of relatively low key intervening gameplay), he walks it back. This is how real people change their minds, not backing down from previously held convictions (whether base or noble) at a climactic moment, but letting a dumb position carry them off a cliff and only seeing in the aftermath that this is crazy and they need to admit to being wrong.

Rather than using the rookie’s first kill just because that’s what you do in violent stories with young people in them, the Last of Us used the common knowledge of how these scenes usually go to establish the incredible degree of callousness Joel is willing to commit to in order to avoid getting close to Ellie and risk getting hurt if he loses her again, and that callousness is so far beyond the pale that even Joel has to stop and notice that the badge on his cap has actually got a little picture of a skull on it, and leads to him reconsidering his position. Very possibly more than anything else, this is what makes the scene work, despite being its basic premise being an eye-rolling cliche.

The Last of Us is a fantastic movie. Kind of a shame they for some reason decided to make it a video game.

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