Waiting For The Hurt

Sony did a big showcase of upcoming games this past week and honestly, all I care about is the new trailer for The Last of Us Part II. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Naughty Dog and, naturally, can’t wait for their next game. I’ve also written many times on this blog about The Last of Us and how much I love it, so, obviously, there’s hype here for its release.

I’m also loath to play it, as my unfinished second playthrough can attest. It’s not a bad game, it’s that the experience of playing it is so visceral and painful that it’s hard for me to sit down and jump in. Even though I haven’t booted it up in years, I know where I left off: Pittsburgh. It’s still early in the game, but I know I’m about to meet Sam and Henry, two brothers who come to accompany Joel and Ellie in the desolation. The brothers’ story ends in tragedy; Sam is infected and Henry shoots him to save Ellie, before, overcome by grief, shoots himself. It’s a painful scene: in part because we’d just gotten to know these two and had been offered a semblance of tranquility, and because the game doesn’t skitter around the emotional toll it takes on Henry before his suicide, and on Ellie and Joel in the aftermath. It’s not a particularly fun sequence of events. 

Maybe part of me is dreading that scene, for the simple reason that, well, it’s a lot. The Last of Us is not one to pull its emotional punches. Gameplay makes you feel vulnerable. Swathes of silent exploration are punctuated by bouts of violence, and in that violence, you never have the upper hand. Ammunition is desperately scarce, improvised weapons break with use. There’s no power fantasy here, as you run from a Clicker just trying to stay alive. Some of the Infected haven’t yet been totally overrun by the Cordyceps parasites and retain some semblance of humanity, and while you’re sneaking around them you’ll hear them weeping. Down a human enemy and you’ll hear them begging for their life as you go in for the kill, not in a way that makes you feel like a badass, but with a patheticness that’s gut-wrenching. 

Video games are immersive, that’s part of the appeal. You get to be the hero who takes up a sword and saves Hyrule, you get to be a jerkwad goose and wreak havoc on a tiny town. The Last of Us leverages this visceral immersion to drive its brutality home. It’s not just Joel carrying out these terrible actions, it’s you. Unlike in a movie or a book, video games require you to take an active part in what goes down on screen. I’ve done it, and I’m not too keen to do it again.

But I’m getting The Last of Us Part II on day one, because, well, how can I not? I want to go through the experience — one that Naughty Dog has promised to be even more brutal — and I want to find out what’s next for Ellie. Oh, I know it’ll be painful, but I know there’s a catharsis at the end.

Aristotle had a lot to say about stories (his Poetics are renowned for a reason). Catharsis, he figured, was one of the most important parts of a story. You must bring your audience through heightened emotions, make them feel joy, wrath, wonder, and sadness, and then at the end of it all, deliver an ending that allows the audience to purge it all out. For all the horror and pain The Last of Us put me through, its resolution allowed me that purge, that release. It was worth it.

I bought the remastered The Last of Us for the PS4, fully intending to knuckle down and play it. I still haven’t, but with the second one coming out soon it’s probably time to revisit the first. It’s gonna hurt, but the beauty and the catharsis will be worth it. Hopefully, the sequel will deliver just as well.

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