Without Tess, There Would Be No 'The Last of Us'
Everyone focusses on Joel and Ellie in 'The Last of Us,' but Tess is the reason for everything that follows.
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Note: there are spoilers for The Last of Us in this piece.
Most of the discussion about The Last of Us, even four years later, is about Joel and Ellie. I get it, I do: They're two characters entwined by fate and tragedy, and you spend the vast majority of the game's runtime following them through some of the most harrowing postapocalyptic scenes imaginable. That grand story is so interesting that we don't hear much about Tess.
Tess is the first character we meet after the game's brutal opening. Joel is holding his dying daughter, the opening credits roll, and twenty years pass. Enter Tess, smuggler and Joel's partner in crime. She's been in a fight, and we quickly roll into a strange plot where Joel and Tess need to find a man name Robert who ripped them off.
From the broad perspective of the Joel and Ellie plot, or what TLoU is "really" about, this opening section of the game is just a contrivance. It's a way to deliver tutorials to the player while introducing a run-down world that's only getting worse.
With Tess, we get to see our first fungus zombies, get in our first gunfight, and learn to do simple environmental puzzles. From the way the rest of the game plays out, it would be very easy to forget about these opening story beats as a part of the normal, everyday violence that makes up Joel's life. This is what happened before he became the extraordinary, grizzled video game violence man.
So what is Joel before that transformation? He's a lackey, and Tess is in charge. The Last of Us's major plot doesn't get going until Tess exits it. The reason? Up until that point, it's her game.
Hold with me here a second: Narrative theorist Gerard Genette developed the concept of "focalization" to talk about the way that information is delivered to someone who is experiencing a story. It's a little more complicated than a "point of view", and as a term it's meant to help us talk about what slice of the broad narrative world the person who is experiencing the story is getting.
In the opening hours of The Last of Us, we have an intense external focalization on Joel. We know his every movement, his every spoken word, and the fifteen minutes he spent walking around a zombie-infested room making sure that he hasn't missed any collectibles. But that extreme focalization helps us miss things, too.
When we read Pride and Prejudice, part of the thrill is that we're locked into Elizabeth Bennett and her surroundings. We don't know what Mr. Darcy is up to, even if he's doing something right there in the room with Elizabeth, and that's what makes the book about manners and people chatting at one another so engaging.
It's the same relationship between Tess and Joel. It's easy to get locked into what Joel is doing during these opening segments. You're having to learn new skills and adapt to the demands that the game is making of you. But if you let your attention slip for just a moment, it's clear that Tess is the driving actor in these moments.
The military-controlled, slum-filled Quarantine Zone in Boston is clearly Tess's town. She's the one who has the plan to track down Robert and get her guns back. She's the one who devises the strategy of going outside the wall to get to the target more quickly. She's the person telling Joel what the best ideas and plans are, and when things get down to the wire, she's the person who puts Joel on the road to helping save the human race.
She picks the routes, the methods of entry, decides to take possession of Ellie as cargo to smuggle, and goes off to verify that Marlene actually has the goods that Robert supposedly stole. She determines that Robert has no more information, and she executes him for it. She is the character who drives the first act of the game.
For the player, Tess is the computer-controller follower. For Tess, the player is the muscle, the lackey, the guy who breaks the arms during the interrogations while she asks questions. She's the operator behind their smuggling operation.
It's fitting that Tess's final scene works the same way. Joel, Tess, and Ellie find the contacts they need to hand Ellie off to. They're dead, and Tess starts to search the bodies for a map or a hint as to where they were going. "What are we doing here? This is not us," Joel growls. He tells her that it's over, and Tess reveals that she's infected. Her story is ending.
"There's enough here that you have to feel some sort of obligation to me," she tells Joel. She tells him to get Ellie to his brother Tommy and to the Fireflies. This is the rest of the game, the pivot point that drives everything else. Without Tess, Joel cuts Ellie loose and goes home. Tess is shot to death buying her people time to escape. She exits the story.
Tess's story is strong and violent. She's a cold-blooded killer with a tactical mind. She's gone through hell, just like Joel, but we only get the smallest sliver of whatever her life was before. She's hidden from us, but hidden in plain view, and paying attention to how she shakes, moves, and sets up the plot of The Last of Us is an object lesson is clever-yet-sidelining character writing. As we await the second chapter to The Last of Us, I wonder how much an adult Ellie remembers of her couple days spent with Tess. I wonder if she remembers the sacrifice. I wonder if she understands her significance.