In my last post, I wrote that video games are generally viewed as childish and immature, often because of their portrayal of women and lackluster story lines. While I stand by this statement and do believe there is room for growth in the industry, I want to make it a point in this post to show that it is completely possible for video games to act as a mode of storytelling on par with books, movies and TV shows. That's because the topic of this post is about the 2013 PS3 survival-horror game The Last of Us, and how it is a true war story according to the parameters set by Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried. So let it be warned that this post is going to be filled with spoilers from possibly the best game ever made, and if you're planning on playing it (which I highly recommend), I encourage you to put off reading this post because the true beauty of the game comes from how the story unfolds before you.
To start off, I have to admit one thing: The Last of Us is a zombie game. It revolves around two characters who are trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where large amounts of people are infected with a fungal virus (Cordyceps) that makes humans aggressive and allows them to spread the virus through bites. Joel is the main character. He's a rugged Texan of about 50 who is escorting Ellie, who's about 14, to Salt Lake City from Boston. Ellie has some sort of immunity to the virus, and there is some medical outpost in Salt Lake City where they can supposedly study Ellie and maybe even make a vaccine for the Cordyceps virus. While it is easy to dismiss TLoU as "just another zombie game", I believe that it is actually one of the most unique games ever made for this reason: it uses gameplay to enhance the storyline, rather than vice-versa. I feel as though the problem with many games story lines can be rooted in the fact that they are there to give meaning to the gameplay. For example, in Mario games, would it really have made any difference if Mario was trying to get to work on time rather than save a princess? Would the games have sold as well if Luigi was some guy Mario met at some plumber's union? Probably not. That's because you don't play Mario for the story, you play it to jump around and shoot fireballs at turtles. And that's okay, if your objective for the game is to have a game that is purely fun. However, TLoU is more complex than that. It uses the interactive nature of video games to make the player live the story and to experience everything O'Brien lists as making a story true. It makes the stomach believe. It's obscene and evil. It doesn't have a moral. It never ends. It's paradoxical.
One of the greatest things about TLoU is the atmosphere. Everything from the music to the ambient noises to the scenery to the characters themselves contributes to an environment that varies from light-hearted and playful to fucking intense and terrifying (pardon the obscenity). This atmosphere is really what allows the "stomach to believe", or in other words, make the player want to turn off the TV and go sit in a corner and try to think happy thoughts. And this happens many times, in many different ways. The most obvious way is through zombie violence and fear, which is present in the entire game. The whole journey, these guys are a constant threat, and the player is almost never prepared to fight them because the game makes ammunition/weapons and medical supplies scarce, so whenever the player hears a zombie near by, they (or at least I) would always tense up and get that feeling of dread in my stomach as I realize I'm crawling through a room filled with at least 10 zombies and only three bullets to my crappy pistol (Here's an example of this terrifying moment. Just listening to the clicks and moans of pain from the zombies makes me want to just run away). And of course the death scenes are bloody and terrifying, what with all of the screaming and whatnot. But there's more to this game than just the violence. Perhaps the most terrifying moment from the entire game is when you encounter a human villain, David, who is a soft spoken man of about 40 with a slight southern drawl who starts out wanting to "marry" Ellie (who is 14) before the player finds out that he is the leader of a group of cannibals. The final scene regarding David's part of the arc takes place in a burning tavern, where the player, who has control of Ellie, has to sneak around the tables and chairs with a pocket knife while David wanders around hunting for her. The whole while, he's taunting Ellie, saying things like "Run little rabbit, run," and "You can try beggin'," in his characteristic drawl. The game extends this little "boss fight", and builds tension with each passing minute, increasing the players sense of vulnerability as David becomes more and more determined to find Ellie and eat he, and this tension culminates when he attacks Ellie by wrapping his hands around her throat and holding her to the ground while he sits on top of her, saying calmly but forcibly, "You don't know what I'm capable of." And then, Ellie is able to turn on him and stab him, and she stabs him until Joel comes and pushes her off, and with each stab you can feel all of the fear and stress of the preceding scenes just drive right into David's lifeless body (Here's the scene). So, despite the fact that this is not even close to the most violent/graphic part of the game, it is the most gut wrenching because of the fear and immersion of the game.
As you can probably guess by the descriptions from the previous paragraph, TLoU is rather obscene and evil. And it should be, considering the fact that it deals with situations where there is almost always an immediate danger of death. Characters swear, a lot. Joel, the grizzled Texan swears. David, the creepy cannibal, and his cohorts swear. And Ellie, the 14 year old girl, swears the most. And I love that. As someone who both is and is around teenagers all the time, I can tell you that there is a lot of cussing that goes on and is always underrepresented in media. I swear my head off if I can't find my headphones, let alone if I'm surrounded by zombies and bandits that want to kill me. There's no sugarcoated language in this game, and of course, no sugarcoated violence either. Lots of blood, lots of guts, but nothing really over the top. It feels real, and that's what matters.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of TLoU is its thematic ideas, and one of the topics it deals with is morality. The designers used the game as a way of interpreting/constructing how morality would work in a post-apocalyptic society, and whether it is just a luxury of peace. The game doesn't really take an overt stance on what moral view is correct. Rather, it seems to suggest that morality does not really exist once the going gets tough, and that necessity and survival dominate over the "greater good". This is well illustrated by the end of the game. In the final scenes, Joel brings Ellie to Salt Lake City only to find out that if the doctors there are going to get anything of medical relevance from her, then they are going to need to preform a surgery that will cost Ellie her life. Joel, who has grown attached to Ellie due to the long journey that he's been on with her and because she acts as a "replacement" in a way to the daughter he loses at the beginning of the game during the initial outbreak, decides that he is not okay with Ellie dying and instead chooses to kill everyone in the hospital who stands in his way, including some of the last trained surgeons on Earth. On the surface, it appears as though Joel selfishly destroyed humanity's last chance at survival in order to save one person. However, when you inspect the details of the game, it becomes less and less clear if Joel made the "right" decision, or if there even is a "right" decision. On one hand, had he allowed the surgery to continue, there was the possibility that a vaccine could have been created and the virus would eventually disappear in the same manner as polio. Everything would return back to normal and things would be just hunky dory. At least, that's how it would be in theory. Unfortunately, there would be no guarantee that the surgery would lead to a vaccine, and even if it did, there is no guarantee that the vaccine would be able to be realistically reproduced and distributed for all of humanity. And in the game, the player comes across self-sustaining settlements, which suggest that humanity will persevere even without a vaccine, and in the chaotic state of the world, that might be the best option. The thing is, though, Joel was not thinking about any of that when he was shooting up the doctors. He was just thinking of Ellie. So he just saved her because he loved her. Or was it because she was the only thing that is keeping him from going insane in this anarchic wasteland? During the final scene, Joel is screaming not Ellie's name, but his dead daughter's, suggesting that he is not saving Ellie to save Ellie, but to "save" his daughter, to create some alternate memory where he doesn't have to watch his daughter die. Does that make his actions okay? The game doesn't say anything to suggest one point of view over another. It leaves it up to the player, and for that reason it is definitely a true story.
Speaking of the "ending", it can be argued that TLoU never really ends. Joel "rescues" Ellie and then they leave for one of the self sustaining settlements to live out the rest of their lives. Ellie, who has no idea about what really went down at the hospital, asks Joel, who lied to her saying that they gave up on finding a cure, if he's telling the truth. He says "I swear." and Ellie says, "Okay." and then roll credits (Final cutscene starts at 5:40). After all that the player has been through, all of the emotional trauma, tears, and laughter, the game ends with that little conversation. Just a simple "okay". An acceptance of a world of entropy. They still live in an America filled with zombies, bandits, cannibals, and lord knows what else, and they just keep trudging on. Sure, they might find a home in the settlement, but it might just be a matter of time before its razed to the ground by marauders or cleared out by some rogue zombie. There is no grand scene with tears and speeches from both parties. No vaccine or declaration of extinction. No theatrics. Just survival.
The final point I'll make about this game is its commitment to paradox. It is a game that is simultaneously beautiful and revolting, heartwarming and sickening, hopeful and depressing. I've already given examples of a lot of the revolting, sickening, and depressing aspects of the game, so let's focus on the prettier parts. One scene that all players remember is the giraffe scene, where Joel and Ellie stumble upon some escaped giraffes amidst the ruins of Salt Lake City. The giraffes act as a serene foil to all of the madness of the world, as they gently wander around the broken buildings and swamps of a once bustling metropolis. It's a moment of peace and calm that the players learn to cherish. Additionally, despite all of the violence and death, there is something beautiful about watching and experiencing Joel and Ellie's relationship grow and change. The player becomes invested in it, and latches on to it as one of the remaining bits of humanity left in the world. Their banter is hilarious, and their loyalty unwavering. Some of the happiest moments in Joel and especially Ellie's life happen in between encounters with zombies and bandits, and without the need for a cure, they would never have met each other.
The Last of Us is about as true as a story can get, for all the reasons that I mentioned above and for a hundred more that I can't really fit into a reasonably lengthed blog post. This game is an emotional experience that gives me hope that one day video games will be accepted alongside books, movies, and TV as literature. It is exhilarating and fun whilst staying complex and thought provoking, and has as much to say about morality, the human condition, and survival as any other piece of literature. But that analysis is for another day, because this post is over 2,000 words long.