Play: The Last of Us

How the Best Zombie Movie of the Last Decade Could be a Video Game

Guest post by Ryan Ring

There is hope in video games, and I have seen it in one of the most bleak and hopeless places imaginable; no, not Detroit, but rather post-Apocalyptic America as depicted in The Last of Us.  A lot has been made of the increasing status of video games as a form of entertainment, and even a form of artistic expression (though I would argue there has been “Art” in video games since, in 1983, Shigeru Miyamoto introduced the most famous Italian brothers this side of the Corleones).  However, despite this tantalizing tagline, few games have really been able to transcend the limitations of their platform, and gaming culture in general, to deliver something that is truly culturally significant from a storytelling perspective.  In fact, those games that have broke into the cultural consciousness have done so for purely superficial reasons (extreme violence, new technology, commercial success, etc.) instead of for their artistic viability.  That is, until now.

There are already innumerable articles on the merits of The Last of Us as a game, and it is a great game, but my intent here is to focus on the merits of its story rather than its gameplay, and what it could mean for video games as cinema.  Now, I fall in the camp of people who don’t believe spoilers ruin a viewing/reading/playing experience, but before I go on, I should mention it will be difficult to discuss this game without divulging some of the critical plot points and events in the game, so you should assume from this point forward there will be some spoilers, though I will attempt to limit their impact.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Last of Us, the story is roughly a mix of Children of Men, The Road, and 28 Days Later (if that doesn’t entice you, I don’t know what will).  The story takes place after the fall of civilization to a progressive fungal infection that causes hyper-aggression in the host, and the declaration of martial law in what few American cities are left standing.  The player assumes the role of Joel, a grizzled Texan smuggler in the Boston Quarantine Zone, who has never quite recovered from the untimely demise of his teenage daughter 20 years earlier at the hands of a conflicted soldier (witnessed in the gut-wrenching opening scenes of the game).  Through a confluence of circumstances, Joel and his smuggling partner Tess are entrusted by the leader of the “Firefly” rebellion group to transport a young QZ inhabitant, Ellie, to safety.   As it would turn out, Ellie is immune to the fungal infection plaguing mankind and represents humanity’s sole hope for vaccination.  As one would expect, things go awry, the Fireflies fail to make the meet, Tess dies, and Joel is left trying to figure out what to do with this girl he never wanted to be responsible for in the first place.

This all sounds dangerously cliché, but the game navigates banality surprisingly well by skirting overt analogies between Ellie and Joel’s deceased daughter and playing on Joel’s role as something of an anti-hero in what winds up being one of the most expansive and rewarding post-Apocalyptic stories in recent memory.  As such, The Last of Us has shown the potential for the video game medium to provide a viable alternative to big-box Hollywood and all it’s trappings.  One of the major limitations encountered in most video games is the shoddy voice acting, and the seeming disregard for a coherent story.  Some games even pride themselves on the ability for the gamer to determine the outcome of the plot through multiple endings.  Not so for The Last of Us on both accounts.  The voice acting for the main roles is impeccable and the script is subtle and smart.  The cinema isn’t limited to cinematic “cut scenes” either, but is sometimes delivered through in-game conversations and cinematic sequences.  The story is also surprisingly tight, and the inherent length of an epic game like this (anywhere between 12 – 15 hours) allows the writers to fully flesh out the slow progression of the relationship between Joel and Ellie in a realistic and complex way.  The dynamics of that relationship are elegantly mirrored by juxtaposition within the mise-en-scene.   As Joel and Ellie traverse ruined America, they don’t only encounter toddler-size corpses, hanged military officials, anthropophagist butcheries, and other grim scenes, but also settings of sublime beauty like when Ellie stalks a wounded buck through a snow covered wood.  The mood is further accentuated by a superb and understated score by Gustavo Alfredo Santaolalla (Babel, Brokeback Mountain).   It’s apparent the importance of atmospheric details was not lost on the game’s creators.

This brings me to the central question:  What does The Last of Us mean for the viability of video games as an alternative storytelling medium?  As with anything, there are positives and negatives.  A significant problem of course is not everyone has the equipment or the time to play, let alone beat, an epic game like this.  Similarly, the narrative is necessarily spasmodic.  A game must still be a game, after all, and you can hardly avoid the narratively superfluous tutorials, combat sequences, and puzzles present in most games.  In addition, any non-playing spectators would probably be bored to death as my character stumbled through dead ends looking for loot or sat still for five minutes trying to stealthily kill an unsuspecting marauder.

However, despite these drawbacks, there are notable advantages to this platform as well.  Video games, while still subject to some Hollywood-style commercial considerations, seem to suffer from fewer limitations when it comes to subject matter and commercial appeal, at least in terms of story.  In the case of The Last of Us, the content is extremely challenging and at times downright disturbing.  In one scene, the player assumes control of Ellie in a situation where one false step (literally) can lead to her nearly being chopped in half with a machete in a gruesome death sequence.  The game uses this unsparing brutality as tastefully as possible and as a measure to demonstrate the stakes at play at any given time.  The player cannot be certain that either Joel or Ellie will make it to the end of the game, and even if they do, you’ll probably have to witness them perish in any number of ways before you get there.  As such, games in general can offer a level of suspense and uncertainty most conventional films fail to match.  Moreover, the plot of The Last of Us itself resolves in a morally ambiguous way that I find it hard to believe would ever make it through the major motion picture studio screening process.

This is not to say that I believe video games will come to replace movies as visual media, and the realm of games is certainly no stranger to unending reams of sequels and unoriginal properties.  Yet perhaps works like The Last of Us will be the vanguard of a new generation of video games with artistic sensibilities, a refuge for those of us craving original thought, creative storytelling, and ultimately inspiration.  Of course, The Last of Us also teaches us that hope can kill, so until the day the industry regularly releases games of this caliber we will just have to “endure and survive.”