Naughty Dog, 2013.
Are video games art? To so much as utter the question is to summon a legion of fanboys and liberal arts grad students to war. The modern gaming world is full of big budget productions with beautiful aesthetics and astoundingly vast worlds. One can argue back and forward about whether aesthetic beauty in the design of these games is sufficient to qualify them as art, however I am interested in a more limited question: Can video games deliver a narrative experience with enough power or clarity to qualify as art on par with more classic forms of story-telling?
There appears to be an inherent contradiction in video games – in offering interactivity, a game seems to intrinsically undermine its ability to tell a cohesive story. Player choice means we can adjust our behaviour and thus revise the narrative during the course of play, or in subsequent play-throughs, according to the consequences we encounter in realtime. In contrast, novels and films generally present a static narrative; the audience can extract subjective interpretations from the work but the unchanging nature of the work itself means the viewer or reader is forced to apply any wisdom or doubt they have learned from the experience to their own future lives, able only to alter the films meaning, not its content, in retrospect.
So, if I could borrow a moment of your time, I would like to talk about video games. In particular, I would like to talk about The Last of Us and discuss how Naughty Dog has established that not only can video games be a useful and provocative medium for story-telling, but they can actually transcend the limits of traditional narratives, subverting the player’s belief that they have control over their character and the ultimate flow of the story, and in doing so, forcing the participant to reexamine not only the narrative and their subjective interpretation of it but also their own expectations and desires, measured against a situation that they were denied control over.
While it might seem like I’m a little late to this party, it’s the first birthday of the generation-defining critical smash hit The Last of Us and with its PS4 upgrade upon us I thought it might be a nice time to reflect and give my thoughts. Besides which, a year later I just can’t stop thinking about it.
A Brief Disclaimer
These days, I am not what you would call a gamer. It’s best to get that out of the way upfront. I probably wouldn’t even meet the description of casual gamer. I have zero game apps on my phone, I don’t care about Farmville, I don’t line up for the latest midnight releases and I don’t read the industry press. Once upon a time, though, I was very much into it. As a kid I would eagerly buy my copies of CVG and PC Gamer – or steal them from my brother – as eager for the demo discs as the feature articles and previews. I grew up evolving side-by-side with the consoles and games themselves, spending my youth keenly following the bit wars, saving every penny for my Nintendo and Super Nintendo. I swapped floppy discs and CD-ROMs with revolutionary games like Doom and Mortal Kombat. The N64 blew my mind and stole most of my late childhood, wandering the fields of Hyrule in Ocarina of Time, bouncing around in the first 3D Mario game and mercilessly harassing the shit out of Dr Doak in Facility in Goldeneye – and it appears I wasn’t the only one:
It was in my teenage years that I began to lose interest. This was around the same time that I discovered alcohol and porn but I’m sure that bears no relevance. The last games I can honestly say I loved and enjoyed were Wind Waker and Resident Evil 4. After that, I just stopped caring. Maybe it was the expense; as mentioned, there was alcohol to be bought. Maybe the market felt over-saturated by too many games being pushed out with so much fanfare and so little substance. Maybe it was my love of cinema absorbing what free time I did have. Whatever the reason, it was almost a decade between the time I gave up on gaming and when I finally relented and bought a PS3, at the end of its life cycle. Even so, this was hardly a measure of enthusiasm for the system – I needed a Blu-ray player and was curious about the hype surrounding GTA V and so I picked one up for cheap – sparing enough money for more beer – and gave it a bash.
A Whole Lot of Nothing to Do.
GTA V is a very beautifully designed game. The environment is huge and you genuinely get the feeling of the various locales through the lens of satirical Americana depicted in the game. However while it may be flashy in style, I still couldn’t help but feel let down by the actual substance. This big, astounding world was rendered so beautifully and with astonishing detail but, past the initial thrill of the same old police shoot-outs, there wasn’t really much to do. The main missions were primarily fetch-missions or random asides featuring such thrilling activities as operating a dockyard crane (seriously) or moving the world’s slowest submarine around a pier. Sure, I could text my ‘friends’, go ‘drinking’ or ‘play golf’, but all these activities felt so utterly disconnected from the actual point of a game like GTA and ended up feeling as though they were just imported from something like The Sims for lack of any idea of what to do with a world so vast. And this is where I felt the problem really lay: as the worlds which technology could create were becoming bigger and more detailed, developers seemed to be at a loss as to how to use them to tell a compelling story. Though the characters in GTA V were well-defined and amusing in their quirks, I found it hard to actually care about them because any sense of purpose in the game was so vaguely defined, the main story didn’t really seem to have any function and the character arcs were overly-simplistic, if not absent. While I can honestly say I got some enjoyment out of the game, in the end it was brief, superficial and for whatever reason, the game and I simply didn’t connect; the narrative was too weak.
You’re the Choice, Try and Understand it.
Games come in all shapes and sizes, but as they have evolved one of the increasing trends seems to be emphasising player choice. This can be superficial customization: in Skyrim you can spend an entire week fine-tuning the exact hue of your character’s eyebrows.
Sam Waterston confirmed for Skyrim fan.
I digress. Alternatively, player choice can fundamentally alter the narrative: Mass Effect gives you eight-million endings and Deus Ex: Human Revolution gives you the option to choose the fate of your character and ultimately humanity. Many games, like the Infamous series, keep track of your decisions, with the world around you reacting to how they perceive your character’s behaviour. Now, I’m not against this form of story-telling; in an interactive medium it makes a lot of sense, and one of my favourite all-time games (Westwood’s 1997 Blade Runner) has more endings than I do drinking-related debts. Even classic films like Rashomon make excellent use of threaded outcomes and interpretations. However, reducing a character-driven narrative to a glorified choose-your-own-adventure novel can also profoundly limit the ability to tell a compelling story or make sense of the world it is set in. Star Wars is an instructive example, a great piece of classic story-telling. The unlikely young adventurer goes on a journey to overthrow the powerful evil system. Now, how is the symbolism and the point of that story, and its characters, affected if we can choose an ending where Luke crashes his X-Wing and the Death Star blows up the Rebels? What is the meaning now – heroes are fucked and evil always triumphs? That could be an interesting choice for a nihilistic story, but it makes no sense within the context of the world and the characters with which we have been presented in the Star Wars universe (which means George Lucas will probably CG it into the next re-release of the films). Clearly, there are circumstances where each style of story-telling has its benefits – the question is, being an interactive medium, how much can games actually achieve with a closed narrative?
The Last of Us.
Taking into consideration my previous observations, I felt like my initial suspicions had been confirmed: video games were simply uninteresting past the problem-solving elements. Just as I was regretting my purchases and considering heading to the liquor store to buy alcohol which I could drink over some vintage pornography, I bowed to the enormous weight of incessant nagging from one of my friends to try The Last of Us, the story of the smuggler Joel who escorts his teenage companion Ellie across a zombie-ridden post-apocalyptic and perilous wasteland in order to possibly find a cure for humanity. It should also be noted that I basically give zero fucks about anything zombie related (with the exception of Shaun of the Dead). The worlds in which survival-horror games take place had been of some interest to me though, having enjoyed Resident Evil and Silent Hill, and so I caved and started to play. Then I played it again. Then I played it again. Masturbation and beer took a back seat for a good two days.
It is very hard to find anything substantial that hasn’t already been said about TLOU. The praise is near unanimous; in spite of the rather tired premise, the writing and acting are superior, the score by Gustavo Santaolalla is melancholic and perfect in its restraint, the atmosphere is immersive, the environments are gorgeous, the social critique is salient and the characters are so fully-developed we care deeply about them by the end of our journey.
It’s the story and the way it is executed within the context of a video game that I want to discuss here, though. As mentioned, the zombie apocalypse (okay, it’s a fungus and technically they’re alive, whatever) has been so thoroughly overexposed in the last decade or so it’s a wonder people haven’t actually started eating their own brains to overcome the fucking tedium. But – as with any tale – it’s not what the story is, it’s how it is told. The genius of what Naughty Dog did with TLOU is present us with a story in an interactive format while denying us narrative choice, even when we really wished we had it.
The setting of the story presents us with two almost distinct worlds, the one being the fortified zones of control, where liberty is surrendered for authoritarian security, and the other being the anarchic wilderness and abandoned towns where scavengers and hunters maintain their autonomy but at the cost of their security and humanity. Both worlds rely on social groups and safety in numbers; it is no wiser to be an enemy of the state in the quarantine zone than it is to travel alone through the woods.
Joel is in an interesting place at the outset of this story. Although he resides within the security checkpoint, he also defies the system, smuggling guns to resistance groups while seeming to show utter disdain for their cause. At a second glance his motives are less surprising – everything about Joel’s character leads him to resent this new world. He was an architect of some sort before the outbreak, a man used to building things, now living in a society of collapse and decay. His new occupation as a smuggler functions to subvert the militaristic system which murdered his daughter – and yet, the Firefly resistance itself represents an attempt to regain humanity in a world where Joel feels it has already been lost.
The story then begins to move Joel from one world to the other. At first, Joel is compelled to murder simply to overcome obstacles, a reflection of his primary imperative of self-preservation (or the protection of his cargo). Throughout the course of the game however, his human connection with Ellie becomes the motivation for his actions. Through the lens of protecting someone he loves, his actions seem less like the brutish and short scramble for survival in a Hobbesian State of Nature and become transformed into a sympathetic method of paternal rescue.
Ellie presents another complex character. Although it seems obvious that she looks to Joel as a father figure, it seems to me more that Ellie’s strength comes at the cost of keeping strong people around her. From her friend Riley to Marla, and then to Joel, Ellie is used to authority. In Left Behind, it is shown that Ellie was to be brought up as a soldier – something she didn’t seem to actively oppose – and told Riley that she was the only one who could change her mind. When Ellie is introduced to Joel she fiercely argues against Marla leaving to show Tess some of the merchandise they were owed.
With all these forces at play, the game propels us through a sequence of events in a split up chronology which shows the characters growing closer as they are forced to rely upon one another more and more. In the final act, the story reaches a climax where the player feels a simultaneous moral dilemma and emotional urgency. We learn the costs of a cure for the infection and the game inserts us right into a scene where we have the illusion of choice. We have a gun, Ellie is in sight. Surely we will come to a scene where we can make the decision, to choose the fate of humanity or the character we’ve grown attached to, right? No.
Whether you like it or not.
The game denies us the ability to choose. The three main decisions at the end of the game (to kill the surgeons, to kill Marla and to lie to Ellie) are made by the characters, not by us. And here in lies the benefit of the straight-narrative, as well as the boldness and beauty of The Last of Us. In any other game we would likely have been permitted to make different choices and be rewarded with a distinct cutscene; here there is no ability to replay and see what happens if we choose differently. This is an exceedingly bold decision, particularly in such an immersive, narrative-driven game. TLoU does not give a fuck whether you like to sneak around the enemies or run and gun; that’s up to you, fine. But when it comes to the choices of the characters, we are mere spectators, the Cartesian homunculus, viewing the decisions of a mind already made and trying to understand why (or in some cases, screaming for reconsideration). The game knows full well the limitations of its format and uses them to subvert the player’s expectations. Though we can choose how to engage enemies, what weapons to craft and what supplies to steal, we cannot choose who Joel is. This is an exercise in fatalism and we are forced to wrestle with the issues raised by the outcome via our imaginations and our moral reasoning. Like the best of cinema, this game forces us to sit back and watch the consequences of action and then bring our own interpretations to the journey and the conclusion in hindsight in order to grow and learn from the narrative. While there is room for games of all different styles, The Last of Us is finally an example of a video game delivering an emotional experience steeped in meaning and symbolism with a narrative and characters compelling us to keep thinking about it long after it’s all over. While there are plenty of games that don’t allow for player choice in determining the outcome, it is the strength of the characters, their interaction with each other, the depth of the story and the illusion of choices as we stumble upon difficult situations which makes this game profound and elevates it to the status of art.
Naughty Dog, 2013.
As for my interpretation of the ending, naturally, many people have speculated on whether Ellie knew Joel was lying to her at the end. The spectacular acting by Ashley Johnson and carefully detailed work by the animators leaves it teasingly unclear. However I would like to observe the arc of Ellie’s character, with one particular scene in mind. Ellie had always known that killing is basically a necessity in this world; she had killed infected prior to meeting Joel, she killed her first human with a gunshot to save Joel and she killed hunters in self-defense. But there is a scene of particular interest, that in which she kills the cannibal David. Having been separated from Joel, alone and threatened, she hacks at his face with a machete in a near-psychotic rage. Ellie has killed before, yes, but never like this; the way in which she takes this life is very different. This is a side of her that we have never seen, and it could be argued that we had not yet seen it because it was only in this moment that it fully evolved. Her breakdown and crying after Joel grabs the machete out of her hands are a result of her reflecting on what she has become. From this scene onwards, Ellie is presented as a different character, quiet and solemn, her interaction with Joel minimal. It is following her savage butchering of David that Ellie realises the truth: the saviour of humanity has become a savage butcher and this world could never let her be anything else.
Ellie now understands what Joel had come to realise: that while there may be a cure for Cordyceps, there is no cure for humanity anymore. As Joel says, you find something to hold on to – that’s all you can do. Though Ellie says she waited for her turn to die when she was infected, she accepts that, no matter what, they are where they are and Joel is what she has to hold on to. The retreat to Tommy’s organic commune concedes their defeat. There are no more battles to be fought, no destinations worth journeying to. In a world where even those of with the best intentions could only achieve the saviour of society by murder, deceit and savagery, then maybe Joel and Ellie do indeed deserve to be The Last of Us.