www.GameInformer.com
Switch Lights

The lights are on

What's Happening

The Last of Us and Child Catalysts

The Last of Us can make me uneasy, not only because of the subject matter, but also at times due to the underlying catalyst for much of the action that transpires. Indeed, the strength of this game from the very beginning also is a potential weakness. The element that holds such considerable sway is the use of a child catalyst or, more precisely, a child endangerment exploit.

This feature introduces a child or children into a dangerous situation in order to motivate the main character(s) to ensure their safety and at the same time engender sympathy and emotional investment in the outcome among those experiencing the story. As such, this exploit is a proven narrative device that is common to many stories regardless of medium.


The issue is whether it should be. There is the ethical matter of whether it is appropriate to manipulate an audience with the constant threat of child endangerment. But there's also the practical consideration of whether it constitutes a kind of cheap ploy to easily generate suspense and attract and maintain an audience. In practice, it works; but is it an aging, overused cheat?

Brothers Grimm fairy tales are one of the earlier and most popular examples. In modern times, Disney films often rely on using children, especially orphans, in dire circumstances in order to weave their tales. Of course, these are children's stories, nevermind the violence that is sometimes associated with them. In many cases, the danger serves to teach a lesson or moral.


The exploit, however, is also used to entertain mature audiences, again regardless of medium. This is where its application becomes more complicated. In such sagas, there is less emphasis on teaching lessons or morals and more on establishing a dramatic story arc for the enjoyment of adults who perhaps grew up on Brothers Grimm or Disney and learned their lessons.

And perhaps the problem is that we are used to such exploitation and manipulation so don't question yet another narrative that relies on such an element for its entertainment value. After all, ratings hungry media conglomerates saturate programming not only with films and TV shows employing this device but with news programs that sensationalize violent crimes against children.


It's no wonder then that our entertainment mediums follow suit in a vicious cycle of child endangerment. Mind you, I don't usually notice or, frankly, even take issue; but I was reminded of this status quo when playing The Last of Us. After all, it's hard to ignore in a brutal game where the presence of children not only influence the story but those partaking in it as well.

As mentioned, and without giving too much away in the form of spoilers, this game features one scenario after another where a child is in mortal danger. Some can be profoundly disturbing as your young companion can perish in a fashion as gory as your own character's demise before the game resets to a checkpoint save. For a parent, especially of girls, the shock is even more upsetting.


This might suggest my own emotional investment in The Last of Us as my girls are about the age of the child characters in the game. I am more easily manipulated by this exploit than someone else who either doesn't have nieces or nephews or children of their own, though most everyone can relate to the paternal or maternal instinct that it appeals to and takes advantage of.

In many ways, I'm the prime demographic for this game; however, the exploit of course is not exclusive to the potential audience that I represent. As in other mediums, there is precedent for its implementation among a wide range of titles, though in my experience it does feature more prominently in sci-fi/fantasy/horror tales or crime dramas where the danger is pronounced.


Children are the main characters in platformer/action titles Limbo and Ico. The Last of Us actually reminded me of Limbo with regard to its brutal fatalities involving children, this even despite the silhouette art design of the latter. In Ico, the young title character escorts young princess Yorda from imprisonment and attacks. In both, the spectre of death is always present.

In each, there is sparse narrative. The objective is to journey through an environment filled with hazards; in the case of Limbo, to find a boy's missing sister and, with regard to Ico, to help a girl obtain her freedom. More so than in other titles, the gamer's control of these young characters makes their possible demise all the more upsetting and their travels all the more suspenseful.


Crime dramas typically involve parents' pursuit of captive children. The Getaway's Mark Hammond cuts a bloody swath through the London underworld to secure his son's release. Kane & Lynch: Dead Men follows the psychopathic leads as they try to free Kane's kidnapped wife and daughter. Heavy Rain's Ethan Mars hunts child slayer the Origami Killer to secure his son's freedom.

The mortal threat to children in the former two games justifies the brutal gameplay and high body counts necessary for completion. The idea is that the ends justify the means, which is rarely more true than when the safety of one's own children is at stake. In Heavy Rain, the infamous child killer's threat to murder Ethan's son is enough motivation for the desperate measures that follow.


But sci-fi/fantasy/horror is the genre that most often utilizes this feature, with several examples in survival horror. Examples of the former include BioShock and Fallout 3. The Little Sisters in BioShock are unique in that you choose their fate for better or worse by opting to rescue or harvest them (for their ADAM); whereas in Fallout 3 you might encounter side quests initiated by children you find.

Little Sisters and their protective Big Daddies might be the strongest icons in BioShock, but they function more in service to the story and gameplay than as prime catalyst. And children in Fallout 3 are even less influential to the overall narrative though they can motivate the undertaking of sidequests. Still you control their fate in both titles and, sometimes, in ways significant to your journey.


Survival horror treatments vary, whether controlling high schoolers in the slasher satire Obscure, as protective parent or threatened teenage daughter in Silent Hill 1 and 3, respectively, or as father figure to an orphaned girl in The Walking Dead. In each case, children of all ages are in harm's way and rely on the player's intervention to for their salvation.

Your control of teenagers left to fend for themselves is the prime motivation for gameplay in Obscure and Silent Hill 3, whereas your protection of young girls is the catalyst for adult characters you play as in Silent Hill (Harry Mason) and The Walking Dead (Lee Everett). In fact, Lee's relationship with Clementine is reminiscent of Joel's association with Ellie in The Last of Us.


What all these disparate titles share, besides reliance on the child catalyst/child endangerment exploit, is a compelling context that helps each rise above mere exploitation or manipulation. While the strengths of their respective narratives vary, the premise behind each is interesting and the execution of it typically is a well done exploration of a theme instead of a cheap cash-in of a cliche plot device.

And, perhaps, therein lies the difference. As cynical manipulation, the child endangerment exploit becomes a questionable storytelling practice that capitalizes on its emotional impact to mask an uninspired or poorly executed tale and generate emotional investment in otherwise two-dimensional characters.  However, as one element of a well-crafted whole, the child catalyst can provide an authentic experience.


Some examples might benefit most from solid execution (Limbo, Ico, Obscure), others from compelling characters (The Getaway, Kane & Lynch), a few from interesting stories (Heavy Rain, Fallout 3) and still others from equal combinations of these (BioShock, The Walking Dead). In this context, the child catalyst is less a deliberate ploy than a key element in service of story arc and character development.

Of course this conclusion to an extent is subjective but it does explain why the child catalyst feature in The Last of Us and these antecedents did not undermine the experience of playing these games. And I would go so far as to suggest it helped raise the profile and reputation of Naughty Dog's latest game in particular, which to this point (half-way for me) is a well crafted character study.


I've already detailed here my early impressions and the emotional impact the game has had even within only the first few minutes, but it bears repeating in the context of this analysis how the developers' concept from art design to story to gameplay provide a sound basis for the development of a game that rises above the potential pitfalls of any one element no matter how controversial.

That doesn't excuse an over reliance on such cliches in our entertainment mediums, it just demonstrates how a more thoughtful approach can mitigate some of the concerns that can arise out of their use. With an excellent script of authentic dialog and character development both overt and subtle, convincing voice acting and detailed facial animations, the child catalyst works as a compelling plot device.


The challenge with making this argument, of course, is that my opinion could be compromised. One could argue that the child endangerment exploit in The Last of Us works so well that I've been thoroughly manipulated by design especially considering, again, that I likely represent the prime demographic of a father gamer with young daughters of my own.

However, even if this is true, I think it supports my contention that when done well, i.e. in the context of an otherwise well-executed title, it can create an organic experience that transcends the cliche and helps craft an immersive experience that rewards gamers instead of insulting their intelligence. For me, Naughty Dog's latest definitely fits that bill.


It doesn't hurt that I enjoy this genre and subject matter to begin with, and that I've been a fan of the developer's past titles. All these things can help color my experience of playing The Last of Us. But their panache at using the child catalyst while avoiding its pitfalls is one more example of how they've elevated not only their craft but our medium, too. At least in my biased opinion. ; )

comments