THE LAST OF US is a Masterclass in POV

When discussing point of view (POV) in storytelling, we often default to literature. In today’s blog post, I’m here to argue that a video game—Naughty Dog’s since-remastered 2013 release, THE LAST OF US—provides a masterclass in how to leverage POV effectively, regardless of the medium in which you’re writing.

Let’s start with the nitty-gritty: What’s POV, anyway?

According to Reedsy, “Point of view refers to the perspective from which a narrative is told. This narration mode is so important because it indicates who is telling the story and how the information is being filtered to the audience.”

POV is frequently divided into four distinct categories.

These are:

  • First person, which is told from inside a character’s head: “I enjoy writing about video games.”
  • Second person, which uses secondary pronouns for the protagonist: “You enjoy writing about video games.”
  • Third person limited, which tells the story from an outside perspective but limits knowledge to one character per scene: “Laura enjoys writing about video games.”
  • Third person omniscient, which tells the story from an outside perspective that has full knowledge of everything, even when the characters don’t: “Laura enjoys writing about video games. Meanwhile, in the other room, her sister is wondering why all of her hobbies are so nerdy.”

I would argue that THE LAST OF US (abbreviated as TLOU) is a shining example of third person limited POV done right. To explain, I’ll start by giving a brief summary of TLOU. If you haven’t played the game and have an intention of doing so, this is your one and only spoiler warning.

Still here? All right. Here’s the official summary of TLOU from the PlayStation online store: “20 years after a pandemic has radically changed known civilization, infected humans run wild and survivors are killing each other for food, weapons; whatever they can get their hands on. Joel, a violent survivor, is hired to smuggle a 14 year-old girl, Ellie, out of an oppressive military quarantine zone, but what starts as a small job soon transforms into a brutal journey across the U.S.”

Put simply, it’s a zombie apocalypse story. Thematically, it’s a compelling examination of grief, trauma, healing, parenthood, and when family bonds run deeper than blood.

TLOU is a game that brought me to tears while white-knuckling my controller. The chosen POV is a major reason for that.

TLOU is presented via gaming’s equivalent of third person limited POV. The player sees the character they control from the outside, and they’re never granted knowledge that the character doesn’t have. Alternatively, the player controls Joel, who takes up the majority of the screen time; Ellie, who claims almost a quarter of the game for herself; and Sarah, who only features in the prologue.

TLOU’s opening is harrowing and disturbing. The player begins the game as Sarah, Joel’s daughter, who is awakened from a deep sleep by a frightened phone call from her uncle, telling her to locate Joel immediately. Televisions throughout the house portray an emergency broadcast, and clamor outside tells Sarah (and the player) that something is deeply wrong. Sure enough, when she finds Joel, they’re promptly attacked by one of their own neighbors—who has become a zombie.

Joel hurries Sarah into the car and attempts to drive them to safety. The player views everything as Sarah, barely able to glimpse Joel from the back seat of the car, watching the chaos unfold through the back and side windows.

Sarah’s POV is effective in this scene because the driving emotion is fear of the unknown. Sarah, being a child, is even more unable to comprehend a zombie apocalypse than her father is.

By placing us into Sarah’s shoes, TLOU instills a visceral horror into the player, who feels the helplessness and confusion of being a child at the end of the world.

As Joel drives Sarah out of town, the car tragically crashes. Joel is forced to crawl from the wreckage and take Sarah, bridal-style, into his arms as he runs for safety. This is where TLOU pulls the player out of Sarah’s POV and grants control of Joel instead.

The switch raises the stakes exponentially. Sarah is afraid for herself; Joel, perhaps even more intensely, is afraid for his daughter. The complete helplessness of a parent in the apocalypse is even more terrifying than the initial helplessness of a child.

By placing the player in Joel’s POV, TLOU ensures that the main character in question has the most to lose in the current sequence.

At the prologue’s end, a soldier, fearing that Joel and Sarah are infected with the zombie virus, opens fire. Sarah dies, whimpering, bleeding, in her father’s arms. The moment hits home even more powerfully because the player has left Sarah’s perspective, which ends here, and entered Joel’s perspective, which is forced to continue living after failing to save his daughter.

The player controls Joel from this point forward. There’s a time-skip to twenty years later. Joel is a broken man, consumed by survivor’s instinct as a shallow cover for his bottomless grief. When he’s asked to escort a teenage girl, Ellie, across a quarantine zone, he agrees out of self-interest.

As he inevitably begins to care for the girl, however, Joel is terrified of losing another surrogate child—and he never has to say it directly. Because the player is in Joel’s perspective, the emotional agony is palpable.

About two-thirds of the way through the game, Joel is impaled on a rusty stake and lies on the brink of the death. This is when TLOU sees fit to grant the player control of Ellie for the first time.

Ellie’s perspective could come as a shock this far into the story, but it doesn’t because this is the first time Ellie has the most to lose.

Joel is immobile and only wakes in painful spurts. Ellie, on the other hand, is tasked with finding food, medicine, and shelter. Joel’s arc is about learning to love a child again, but Ellie’s is about learning to survive like an adult, even though she’s far from grown. Without Joel to protect her, the challenge of survival looms larger than ever. Being the most active character, Ellie is the perfect choice for POV in this situation.

Eventually, towards the end of Ellie’s section, she’s locked in a deadly game of hide-and-seek with a cannibalistic predator named David, who stalks Ellie with a knife as a building burns down around them. This marks the only sequence in the game with rapidly alternating POVs.

The player is alternatively granted control of Joel, who staggers through the snow to find and protect his surrogate daughter, and Ellie, who is fighting alone, surviving by the skin of her teeth.

The alternating POVs work to ratchet up the tension because both characters have an enormous amount to lose. Joel can’t bear to lose another child, and Ellie refuses to let her youth and naiveté be her undoing.

Ultimately, Ellie saves herself, completing her survivalist arc. Joel pulls her off of David as she stabs him again and again, knowing he’s already dead. Ellie weeps openly. Joel holds her close to his chest, calling her “baby girl,” a nickname he’s only ever used for his long-lost daughter, Sarah. In this way, this moment brings both Joel’s and Ellie’s arcs to a climax.

The game returns to Joel’s POV. The player won’t return to Ellie’s until the final sequence of the game, which only involves some simple walking as Joel leads. So why does the game switch points of view?

On the outside chance that you’ve read this far and still haven’t played TLOU, I’ll be vague about this final spoiler. Essentially, Joel made a decision in the game’s final action sequence that Ellie would have likely disapproved. He did it to protect Ellie, however, and he doesn’t want her to feel guilty or see him differently, so he lies about what took place.

The brief walk with Joel leads up to that final lie, which has far more impact on Ellie than it does on Joel. As a result, briefly returning the player to Ellie’s POV causes a resounding impact when that final lie is told just before the credits roll.

So what can writers learn from THE LAST OF US?

When choosing a POV character, consider who has the most to lose. If that changes throughout the story, multiple POVs may be worthwhile. If you allow the stakes to guide your choice of perspective, you’ll avoid jarring the reader and keep them hooked until the very last page.

What books, games, or films would you say are masterclasses in point of view? Tell me in the comments!

Updates

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