Some fragmentary thoughts on The Last of Us

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I’ve made sporadic, clumsy attempts to write about video games on this blog before, and here’s another. I do think I might do this more, though, because I write about games a good deal in a vaguely academic sense for Cyborgology, and when I do, I tend to come at them from a narrative-focused perspective, though I’ve also written about things like mechanics and game design (and DRM) because you can’t really separate those things from narrative in a game – yeah, that pretty much tips my hand on where I come down in the now-tired ludology/narratology debate.

I also tend to be behind in terms of writing about games that you have to pay more than about $10 for. This is because so much of my time is taken up by writing and teaching and other related stuff, and also because, for financial reasons, I tend to really, really try to wait for Steam sales, which usually puts me a few months behind at least.

All that said, I got The Last of Us for Christmas and I have some Thoughts. Here they are.

– I’m both impressed and a little startled that something this much of a trope salad ends up not feeling like a game that’s desperately and clumsily trying to please an audience that’s already been pounded to death by post-apocalyptic militaristic zombie dystopias. I don’t know if it’s because of how emotionally engaging the story manages to be or whether I’m just still a sucker for things like The Road, but I never found the obviously tropey stuff distracting or clangy. It somehow all meshes together and feels of a piece. That’s saying something about the quality of the writing involved.

– I cannot even believe the voice acting. This should be the standard that all other narrative-driven games try to meet, because you know? Voices mean a lot. They might mean just about everything. Facial animation helps, but man.

– Boy, a lot of the first half of it reminded me of Enslaved. I fucking loved that game.

– I do largely agree with Christopher Franklin that the game is working within a limited design format that ends up creating a slightly jarring disconnect between cutscenes and combat. The Last of Us is clearly trying to connect the two in a way that feels meaningful, but it doesn’t quite stick the landing. In what is – in my opinion – an otherwise nearly perfect game, that’s the one really noticeable false note.

– I loved the ending. I see why some people seem to not have done. But for me, the emptiness and the bleakness fit the rest of the game’s mood. I also found the ambiguity about the future more satisfying than I think others did. No, there are no immediate consequences for the choice that gets made. But I think the game is strongly implying that there will be, and they won’t be pretty. I like that the writers had the guts to leave the part to my imagination.

– Along those lines, I think the last game I played that was this emotionally brutal – aside from The Walking Dead, which also shares a lot of similarities here – was Spec Ops: The Line, though of course The Last of Us is nowhere near as overtly abusive. There were things that happened that literally had me staring at the screen in shock. There were things that made me say, out loud, “Oh my God.” There were things that I found deeply upsetting. Part of this is that I often lose myself in a story to the point where I don’t clue into the parts that other people find predictable, but regardless. Like The Line, this is not a “fun” game. It’s not trying to be.

– Further long those lines, probably what I found bravest and most effective is something else that the game shares in common with The Line, which is a deep skepticism about the idea of heroes in games wherein the protagonist commits acts of horrendous, cruel violence. Walt Williams, the lead writer for The Line, said in an interview something that I love and has stayed with me: “Your main character can never be more righteous than the core mechanic demands.” In other words, don’t do or be Nathan Drake. If you’re killing hundreds and even thousands of people, you are or must become a mutilated monster of a human being in some very fundamental ways, and the game’s story – if there is one – needs to address that in some way. Uncharted does not. The Last of Us does. Joel is not a hero. Joel is an emotionally ruined, selfish, wreck of a human being and he makes horrible choices. When the game ends and you sit there feeling sad and empty, I think that’s pretty much how you should feel.

Even further along those lines, I think The Last of Us does something else that makes the characterization of Joel even more poignant and effective: it makes it very, very clear that most of the people Joel/you kill aren’t special or evil or even significantly different than Joel himself. Almost everyone in the game is simply doing whatever they perceive is necessary for their own survival. No one is a good person; the world doesn’t allow them to be. As Joel says at one point, “it was either him or me.”

This is something else that The Line attempted to do: to humanize the people you kill, to make it clear that they’re just people, as lost and confused as the protagonist, desperately fighting to stay alive. That said, the one way in which this fails – and also failed in The Line, though I think you could also argue that it’s part of Martin Walker’s crazed attempt to justify to himself what he’s done – is that no one is really ever afraid of you, at least not in the gameplay segments. They remark on how startling and worrying it is that you’ve killed so many of their friends, but no one cowers in corners and pleads for you to spare their lives, unless they then attack you seconds later. No one runs in terror or tries to shield their friends from your bullets. They just come at you, over and over and over in a human wave, and you kill them. In that, the game both humanizes and dehumanizes them, and not in the conscious way in which The Line worked. It’s another slightly false note, though on my first playthrough I didn’t notice that it detracted from the experience at all. And in fact, I suspect that that has more to do with how accustomed I am to playing a game like that than the quality of the game itself.

I’m not sure how to fix this, and I’m skeptical that actually having NPC enemies do those things would be fully effective. I think the problem is, yet again, core mechanics, the fact that in a game like this, killing – even lent emotional weight by the narrative – is fundamentally problem-solving, something that has to be done in order to allow you to move through to the next cutscene. Again, I think The Line was aware of this and managed to make some narrative use of it, but it didn’t seem to me as though The Last of Us was, and I’m not sure how it could have been that kind of self-aware without being an entirely different kind of game.

A game that does do this – that does almost everything that The Last of Us is trying to do and does it much better – is The Walking Dead, but that game makes use of different mechanics; I think that’s a huge part of why it’s able to do these things more effectively. So again we’re simply running up against the inherent limitations of a particular kind of game.

Again, for what it is, I regard The Last of Us as a game that comes about as close to perfect as a game like itself could. It’s definitely on my list of the top ten games I’ve ever played. But again, I’m with Christopher Franklin in seeing it as also a perfect example of what this kind of game really just can’t do, at least not as it currently stands. I think it also stands as a call for something better, for something new in terms of how we blend mechanics with storytelling. So I’m optimistic about what The Last of Us means and is doing.

And I’m playing it all again, so that definitely has to mean something.

3 responses to “Some fragmentary thoughts on The Last of Us

  1. I feel like The Last of Us (similar to Dishonored but for different reasons) is a great game that I know I wouldn’t enjoy playing. Even though I know the game isn’t necessarily trying to be “fun” in a traditional sense.

    Speaking of Spec Ops, have you read “Killing is Harmless” by Brendan Keogh? http://www.amazon.com/Killing-Harmless-Critical-Reading-Spec-ebook/dp/B00B9P2WP6

    It’s a critical examination of that game. I haven’t read it yet (because I haven’t played more of Spec Ops besides the demo) but he did talk about it during this year’s GDC.

  2. Sunny Moraine

    I have! I used it pretty extensively in a paper I just wrote for a game culture conference. It’s amazing.

    God, do not even get me started on Dishonored. I think we’ve talked about this before.

  3. Enslaved = I fucking loved that game, too! 🙂 Except the ending, which was too abrupt. But otherwise – YES!

    Great post – I’ve never thought about how game mechanics themselves can limit plot/emotional connectivity of a game. Like grinding in RPGs to increase stats – one HAS to kill guards and other NPCs to increase hit points, defense, and the like. So there’s never any moral question as to whether one should kill the guards or not (or pointing out of the fact that they are just poor slobs doing their jobs!). This is definitely an area I’d like to see game developers focus more on. We’re playing Assassins Creed 2: Brotherhood at the moment and I love the fact that when you kill a garrison’s commanding officer, the rest of the guards run away in terror. Much more realistic than the games where the guys keep attacking you. 🙂

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