The Story that could only be told as a Video Game
**Note: This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us, and Left Behind (the downloadable extra chapter). You have been warned!
I’ve been playing video games for a long time. And I continue to do so. I don’t think that all games are good– in fact, a lot of games are total shit. But occasionally, you run into a game that is really an amazing package of innovation in its time. It does something new, not just in terms of gameplay, but in terms of how gameplay and storytelling mingle altogether. It does something new in terms of how it manages to make you feel.
The latest in this tradition is The Last of Us. I’ve already posted about this title before, but it comes up again now because a few days ago I downloaded and finished the extra chapter, called Left Behind.
Left Behind wasn’t bad– it adds clarification to the main game. It does have a few downsides that detract from the feel of the main game though– for example, a 14-year old girl who kills about two dozen armed adults, and all you start off with is an empty revolver and a folding knife? I don’t think we needed to go there– in fact, I felt that one of the main reasons why the main game was so convincing was because fighting was so difficult. Most of the game is spent playing as Joel, a 40-ish suvivor of the initial outbreak who makes his living as a smuggler. He’s one tough bastard– give him guns of any sort and he’s deadly. But given that bullets are in short supply, much of the game is about sneaking around and finding ways to be efficient. It’s not your typical third-person shooter in that you can’t get through the game just shooting anything that moves. Nor is it a Metal Gear Solid sneaking game where you can just take your time sneaking about through vents– In MGS games, whenever you do accidentally get spotted, you can just kill everyone who gets in your way. It is preferred to sneak around, but the game mechanics are such that even if you fail at being subtle, you will not be punished– you are just inconvenienced.
The Last of Us hates combat, because every time you’re force to fight, you use up precious ammunition, life, and supplies that might have been the only thing to get you through some later scenario. Although I was playing on “hard” mode (I’ve now taken up “survivor mode), I can say that as far as these types of games go, The Last of Us makes you feel that combat is a last resort, and that if you’re going to have to fight, you need to set up the scenario so that the fight goes in your favour.
That said, Joel being proficient enough that he tapes scissors to lead pipes to use as a melee weapon, being big enough that he can take grown adults hostage and use them as human shields, and literally beat a man to the ground with nothing but his fists and boots? Combat is pretty visceral, it’s difficult, and it’s a very involved process even when playing as Joel. True to real world streetfights, as good as you are one on one, fighting hand to hand is really difficult if there’s more than one of them– ubless you chose your angles right, you will very likely die.
Which is all the more reason why, when Joel is injured and you are suddenly given control of Ellie, the first thing I thought was: holy fuck. How are we going to survive as a little girl?
The part where you play as Ellie in The Last of Us was, frankly, terrifying. While she can take down an armed adult male with her pocket knife if she manages to sneak up on him, if you lose the element of surprise, Ellie almost never wins a fist fight. It usually ends with a rather horrifying scene where you are being choked to death. You actually see her eyes go glassy. Unlike the portion of the game where you play as Joel, and survival entails wrestling for dominance with other hunters, playing as Ellie is about staying the fuck out of head on confrontations with adults with guns because frankly, you don’t stand a chance.
One of the most stressful fights of the game is in the Ellie portion of the story. A tribal leader of a group of cannibals hunting you with a machete, while you are trapped with him in a burning ski lodge restaurant. You have your trusty folding knife and… what? Some bottles you pick off of tables? Eventually, Ellie does manage to get the better of him, but even after you’ve basically stabbed him and scrambled away several times, the difference in the food chain is clear– adults still get up from knife wounds from 14-year old girls, whereas the opposite is not likely to be true. The leader manages to catch up to her and disarm her, and is literally about to gut her when she manages to get her hands on another weapon. I wouldn’t say that it was a “touching moment,” but when you somehow manage to take that boss down, Ellie’s mind breaks.
She starts hacking away at the guy’s head with his own machete.
As the gamer, it is one of those moments when it almost makes you cry. Is this it? You wonder. Is this the breaking point of a 14-year old girl? She survived, yes, through tons of infected and tribalistic humans with Joel’s help– she’s held her own through several tough scrapes. But Joel was always there for her, as much as an emotional crutch as he was a physical guardian. But look how scared she is, now that she’s on her own.
And look at what it’s driven her to– she can’t even stop herself. She has been tough all this time– and suddenly, she breaks down after surviving? The contradiction is huge irony, but one that you can’t help but feel bottoming out of your stomach, as she hacks away at the villain, who seconds ago, was about to cut her up into little pieces. Joel shows up only after that harrowing ordeal, and pries her away from the dead leader, who she is still trying to kill… she doesn’t even realise that he’s dead yet. And you can’t help but feel terrible. Yes, you beat the boss, and you were playing as Ellie– and you did what you had to do. But you can’t help but feel that the whole situation is unfair– yet you wouldn’t have done it any other way.
Unlike other games, The Last of Us does not glorify violence. It’s presented in a way that you come to loathe it. You come to fear it, and respect it. Because it isn’t just a tool in this game– it is something that feeds back into the personality of the characters. Every time they have to kill someone– whether it’s a man or an infected– you feel a bit of their capacity for humanity dry up a little more.
So on that note, I didn’t like how in the add on chapter, Ellie takes on a couple dozen baddies with nothing but her pocket knife and an empty revolver (although she can take up weapons from fallen enemies). While the intense combat system is part of what makes this game great, it breaks the theme of “survivor” for a 14 year old girl to basically be that good, even if she has been picking up tricks from Joel (even though he never wants her to learn these things). I thought that the presence of so much combat detracted from Ellie’s vulnerability, which was a lot more nuanced in the main game.
Despite that the add-on chapter was rather short, it was much appreciated– the backstory that it gives to Ellie and Riley is bittersweet, and reminds you that at the end of the day, she really is just a little girl who has been forced to grow up way too fast.
Anyway, the reason I mention this game again is in part as a follow up to my previous post about appreciation for mediums. Essentially– how is it that The Last of Us is, and always will be, “better as a video game” in such a way that no movie or book could ever make it work?
The reason for this is because it’s a game that takes advantage of the medium. Fundamentally, I like to think of a well crafted video game is like a cross between a movie and a book. Ideally, it combines nothing but the strengths of the two. But the main thing that it adds over movies and books is control.
The modern video game (as opposed to it’s 8-bit ancestors, which require a different analysis) draws several things from movies, for instance– cinematographic technique like camera angles and lighting. The modern video game also requires great voice acting and character models. So many games get broken because they have terrible voice acting– or voice acting that seems out of place in particular situations. Dragon’s Dogma for instance was annoying as shit because, while your NPC allies were very helpful and sincere, and there were a range of voices they could have and their lines were well presented, they just wouldn’t shut the fuck up, ever. The problem then wasn’t that they weren’t saying things with emotion or energy– it’s that they were saying these things in bad timing to the rest of the gaming situation. For example, if you jumped off a rooftop (and hurt yourself slightly) one of your NPCs would scream “MASTER! Don’t worry, I’ll heal you immediately!” which just… ruins the mood. I mean… calm the fuck down, okay?
The Last of Us was really smart in this sense because there was some sort of algorithm which decided when dialogue would happen. So for example, some of your ally NPCs might have a one liner like “there’s a whole bunch more coming! We need to get out of here!” in the heat of battle. Or someone Ellie might sigh and say “god, I hate those creepy things” after you’ve managed to get out of an area. The dialogue is not out of place. You might be walking through a street, and Ellie might make a passing comment looking at an advertisement from pre-infection days, and a casual conversation will start:
“Well, yeah, some girls back then thought it was attractive to be thin.”
“You mean they had food, but decided not to eat it?”
“That’s just stupid. That makes no sense to me.”
Attention to details was great in that way. The game builds a relationship over the course of a year in the game world– we see as Joel goes from a callous, selfish bundle of damaged goods to, unwittingly, a redeemed father figure who struggles to fit caring into a terrible world.
At the beginning of the game, he wants nothing to do with Ellie. Years before he met Ellie, Joel lost his own daughter in the first days of the outbreak– not to infected, but to a normal human soldier who was trying to enforce a quarantine perimeter. After surviving a car crash, and making it out of a burning town of infected people literally running through the streets killing anyone they can get their hands on, you make it away– only to have your daughter shot by a quarantine soldier? That’s just too unfair. It is understandable thus that Joel is reluctant to make any associations or form any meaningful relationships with people– much less Ellie, who is about the same age as his daughter would have been.
But you get through a lot together. We see as gradually, Joel opens up to her, and starts to take on an increasingly fatherly role. He doesn’t know it at first. But for example, Ellie asks for a gun to help you guys survive– which Joel declines for the majority of the game. You can’t help but get the sense that on some level, he doesn’t like the idea of a 14-year old girl dirtying her hands by killing.
At some point, when Ellie and him have travelled substantially together, you can see that it’s like the realisation by a father that his daughter is grown up. He is still at odds with this because, at the end of the day, she’s still just a kid– but her eyes say a lot about how she’s actually older than her years, and that she should be respected. And so he lets her, reluctantly, take a hunting rifle.
By the end of the game, their connection is so strong that he goes on a suicide mission to save her from surgeons who want to extract the cure to the infection from her brain– a process that invites certain death for her.
And here’s one of the reasons why this game could only be a video game. Because it tells a story while giving you control.
You are basically in this situation: either you can leave Ellie at the hands of the surgeons, who will take her apart for science and probably find a cure for the infection that plagues humanity with the zombie-like pandemic. Or, you can save Ellie, but in the process, forsake all that’s left of humanity.
By the time you make it into the research facility by storm, you’re a bit late. After over an hour of making your way through heavy resistance, you kick open a door to the operating room and find that Ellie is already on the table– they’re just about to cut her open. The doctors and nurses in the room literally have no idea who you are or what’s been going on. They are just doing this because it’s their job– they want to help the world.
At this point, you have control over Joel.
What did I do next?
I saw Ellie on the table. I heard the medical staff saying that I can’t be there. Someone probably said something about oh god please don’t hurt me. What did I do? I think one of the doctors tries to stop you or attack you, I can’t even remember for sure. Kick him away, and shoot him.
With full control over Joel, I walked up close to the remaining medical staff, and put a bullet in each of their foreheads. The reflex from playing this game for what feels like a year, living life with Joel and Ellie, tells you that this is what you need to do to survive. And in a twisted way, it was just an instinct to do it at point blank, because that was the best to make sure I didn’t miss– to save bullets.
It was all over in less than 5 seconds: as Joel, I had almost without hesitation killed, for the first time in the game, unarmed civilians who posed no threat to me whatsoever.
I’m told that if you actually wait, nothing will happen– the game requires you to kill the medical staff in the operating room to continue. But the execution of this scene was interesting– they didn’t just do it as an FMV where they would show you what Joel does. They gave you control. And at least in my case, once I had it, even though I was consciously aware of the fact that they were doctors and nurses who thought they were saving the world, I pulled the trigger. Multiple times.
Because the game had built into me a sense of protectiveness over my fictional little girl. And when asked to act? I responded.
Now, the reason why I make a big deal out of this scene is because it troubled me a lot, in retrospect. It was a choice which I made, and it pained me to make it– but if I was given the choice again?
I would probably do the same thing.
And this is the disquieting nature of this game– it puts you in situations where you don’t get to be the hero. Where you really feel like you are just one person trying to figure out how to live with yourself. Where you are selfishly chosing who is important to you, and that for all the ideals that are out there, it can all be reduced to defining moments where you make choices that will haunt you, but which you may or may not regret.
After playing the game, I was mentally exhausted. I’ve never killed a human before, much less several. Nevermind a bunch of people who had nothing to do with me, and who meant me no harm.
The Last of Us could only be a video game, because a movie always presents to you characters who are you are empathise with. A game, on the other hand, and more specifically, a game such as this, doesn’t just require you to empathise. It makes you become the character. In the cleverest and most insidious of ways, it makes you take responsibility for the storyline– it gives you the freedom to pull that trigger. It asks you: what will you do? And time stops– because it is not a movie or a book where the answer is in the next frame or page. The answer is in your conscious decision– it goes beyond what the character would do, it is a question of what you would do.
Panic at seeing Ellie on the table made me lose myself. Once I had control, I lined up the barrel, and squeezed.
Never in my history of being an entertainment consumer have I felt so responsible for who I am.