The Last of Us
I finished the game, The Last of Us on PS3 a few days ago.
First, the technical bits. The game is beautiful. The graphics are superb, and really show off the PS3’s abilities. Voice acting, facial expressions, and body language are superb as well, to the point where it feels like you’re watching a movie put together by the interpretations of genuine actors. Direction is awesome– there isn’t a moment of storytelling that is without purpose. No words (or pauses) are out of place. The music (or general lack thereof) is appropriate, serving to ground the game in a very real feeling– the music doesn’t impose emotions on you (as it does in, for example, Metal Gear Solid games, though in these cases in a good way) but rather, it provides the space for you to feel within.
There are some gameplay issues, like how your AI allies seem to ignore all the rules of the game– you yourself must hide behind cover or trigger combat with enemies, but your AI allies sometimes wander out into the open and even walk right into enemies and it doesn’t seem to matter. But other than that, the game is technically very complete.
In terms of the meat of the game, which to me, is about story and character development: It is a game unlike any others. Fundamentally, it deals with morality. Moreso than any game in the past. Actually, I can’t say much about this game because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t played it. But in getting to the ending– I really wondered what kind of person I am.
At it’s core, The Last of Us is an examination of human morality through a situation of exaggeration. It takes place in a post apocalyptic world that, unlike other games that highlight violence as novelty and a means of escaping our real world everyday through the glory of violence, this game presents you with a situation where, as the player, you want to do just the opposite– you want to escape the violence.
When I say that we play games because they are violent, I say that very lucidly. The fact of the matter is, we aren’t allowed to do a lot of things that we do in video games. I’m not talking about jumping twice our human heights, being able to use telekinesis, or use magic.
I’m talking about the things which, in real life, would wind us up in jail, or dead: using unauthorised force to intentionally harm or kill.
I’m not saying that video games don’t have their place. At the end of the day, it’s supposed to be fantasy. The theory is, we allow these themes of these games (and other forms of art) to propagate because there is this expectation that the average gamer knows that there is a line. There are the things we do as a part of fantasy, and there are the things that we can actually do in real life with the public.
Killing, somehow, has become one of those things that we’ve commodized as a fantastic experience in gaming.
I use the word “commoditize” because I think that’s what has happened, in a very stealthy way– because like all things that get commoditised, there is a certain distance from the original concept.
The the difference between “murder” and “killing” is a very subtle one. Games nowadays oftentimes try to present killing in a particular way, one that makes you feel like it’s something you have to do, or something that you’re entitled to doing because of the circumstances. In that way, “murder” is more like “self-defense” or at times more pre-meditatedly self-righteous, like “vengeance.” The moral decision isn’t really there– us gamers, playing the protagonists, are very infrequently presented with a need to question just why it is that we’re doing what we’re doing. We’re entitled to shoot whoever we want to shoot.
Games conveniently frame it as a question of us versus them. “They” are zombies, terrorists, criminals. Occasionally, a story reverses things and gives you the chance to be the bad guy: in which case the “good guys” are getting in the way of your ambitions. The point is, games tend to picture it as black and white– there is them, and there is you, and whichever side of the fence you’re born on is the side you will fight for to your death. The narration just give you some reason to believe that what you’re doing is just what you’re supposed to be doing.
The Last of Us is a game unlike others because it is the first one in a long time where the violence isn’t the escapism from reality– you play this game because you want to escape from the violence of that reality. In other words, you want to find some sort of answer to basic human questions about what you would do to survive when society gave you hard choices to make on a daily basis. It doesn’t give you a reason to kill. The only thing you have is a reflex to survive– but that only carries you so far, because as the game points out, wanting to live and actually survive are two very different things. There are a numer of moral and ethical choices that you are quickly presented with– and in the heat of the moment, you find that you may already have blood on your hands before you had time to consider what was the right thing to do.
At it’s most superficial, you could say it’s a “zombie” game that uses the post-apocalypse as a critique of our social order. Most generously however, and this is the way I take it, it is a re-examination of the high horse from which we build laws and a sense of value in society.
What are the kinds of decisions that you would make when you’re alone, that you wouldn’t if other people were watching? What would you do to survive if there were no reprecussions? What kind of person would you be if everything and everyone had failed you, and only caused you pain? What would you be capable of, alone, as opposed to a social being?
As I played through The Last of Us, I noted that I was actually starting to hate the violence of it. The game is extremely graphic. It’s not your typical third person shooter where they simply try to find ways to gore you to satisfaction. Here, bullets are rare. Combat is gritty. If you find a brick or bottle, this is what you take to your adversary’s face to stun them, buying you enough time shiv them in the neck or smash their face against a wall. Sometimes you throw them down and stomp their skull.
Very often, if you manage to grab an adversary, the adversary will beg you for his life.
The combat is rooted in a theme of the game: infinite needs clash with limited resources. The things you need to live are the things they need to live. So you improvise with pipes with scissors strapped to their ends to make them like improvised pickaxe weapons. You set traps of cans of shrapnel that tear flesh and break bones.
Why do you do all this? Because, you, like the people you murder, want to survive– and the game will never stop reminding you that you all want the same things. It’s not a question of who is right and who is wrong– it’s just a question of who wants to survive more, and who is willing to sacrifice more of their humanity in the process.
The game is unique in that it drives you towards violence, even while it nurtures in you a distaste for it– it forces you with that decision to be violent or to simply roll over and die, and stop. Ironically, you get better and better at violence– to the point where, as the gamer, you might actually find yourself trying to avoid killing people who are just doing their jobs if you can avoid it. You start to wonder if the enemies are really enemies, or if you yourself are an enemy.
You wonder what it is that you’re struggling for.
If you want to continue, you really have to decide what it is that your protagonist wants out of life.
I can’t say more without spoliing the game, but let me just say that this game is masterfully crafted. It is storytelling and gameplay through the medium of videogames at its best.
I know that certain experiences are not for everyone. Not everyone can work in a hospital, law enforcement, or military without being traumatised for example– not everyone will be able to get a good experience or lesson out of it. In the same way, The Last of Us is not a game for everyone. But if your mind could take it, and you were serious about finding a bit out about who you are, I would say: play it.