Tag Archives: The Last of Us

Beauty in Destruction

I saw Annihilation this week, which, y’know, shouldn’t really be surprising. I like Alex Garland as a writer (Never Let Me Go is heartbreakingly beautiful, Dredd is a solid action movie) and enjoyed his directorial debut in Ex Machina. Annihilation is science fiction replete with a primarily female cast, so it checks a lot of boxes for me.

And it’s a wonderful film, truly haunting with some moments of absolute horror, but one that is essentially devoted to the pursuit of the sublime, of that terrible beauty. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but the trip to end is one that stays with you.

It’s also super clear that Alex Garland has played The Last of Us. No, plot points aren’t borrowed from Naughty Dog’s great game. There’s no fungal virus and it isn’t about the relationship between two very different people. But Annihilation, though based on a novel, undoubtedly draws on the video game in its portrayal of the world beyond the Shimmer.

The central plot of Annihilation deals with the Shimmer, a phenomena radiating from a crashed meteor wherein everything within its thrall gets, well, weird. The mystery of the Shimmer and what lays within is the big question of the movie and drives Lena and her team to investigate. Over time, it becomes clear that the Shimmer affects organic life somehow, and changes it.

A heads up, though, some minor spoilers for Annihilation are inbound. Unless you’ve seen the trailer, than you’ve already seen what I’m talking about (I hadn’t, and upon watching it now, holy crap that thing reveals a bunch).

It affects people too. Lena and her team come across a prior expedition from about a year before. The members were affected by the Shimmer, and their bodies begun acting up. At the bottom of the pool they find the remains of a person who has since become almost plantlike and fungal and merged — grown — into the wall. His legs are still there, seated, but his entire upper torso has, for lack of a better word, flowered. It’s gruesome — his skull is several feet above his legs at the top of the ‘plant’ — but it’s also beautiful, in its own way.

The Last of Us (which, coincidentally, came out a year before the book Annihilation is based on did), features the same image. Over time, those infected by the fungal cordyceps will stop moving, settle down, and grow into their surroundings until all the remains is the vague silhouette of a human being surrounded by waves of fungus. While playing the game you will encounter these strange ‘corpses,’ sometimes moving them aside, sometimes just walking past. They’re grotesque, but at the same time beautiful.

The same can be said of how The Last of Us portrays its apocalypse. The world’s been ravaged by neglect and the Infected, and yet it’s somehow still beautiful. The flooded desolation of Pittsburg is tattered with trees and greenery growing through and around buildings; it’s all so lovingly rendered that the landscape of the apocalypse almost loses its despair and takes on its own serenity, grandeur. Consider the giraffes, and how amidst the bleakness there was such beauty. Annihilation has its share of abandoned structures and desolation, but the Shimmer speckles it with flowers and other bits of pretty. Somehow the abandoned is beautiful, even with the horrors inside.

What connects Annihilation and The Last of Us isn’t just the imagery (although, dude, those bloomed corpses are super similar), but rather how unique is how they portray destruction. Other similar stories with wastelands, be they the thousands-of-years-later ruins of Horizon: Zero Dawn or bombed-out town in your war movie of choice show beauty in contrast to destruction. Look at that shell of a tank, now look at the majestic tree next to it. For Annihilation and The Last of Us, destruction is intrinsic to beauty; it is the former that causes the latter: there is worth in the decaying frame of a half-sunken house, the corpse of an infected is as beautiful as it is terrible. It’s a haunting aesthetic, one that informs the incredible atmosphere of both works.

Addendum: A quick google shows that, yeah, Garland’s played The Last of Us and it’s one of his favorite games (alongside Bioshock). So maybe I’m not crazy about the influence the video game had on his movie, after all, artists steal.

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But For Adults

Dennis Villeneuve is currently attached to the latest adaption of Dune. It’s an exciting prospect: Dune is a rich novel and Villeneuve has shown himself to be both a skilled director and excellent at adaptations.  Arrival was an excellent adaption of a terrific short story, one that managed to make the feeling of the ephemeral come as much to life on the screen as the page. Blade Runner 2049 somehow captured the moodiness of the original while injecting it with something new.

So if there’s someone who can do Dune, a big sci-fi epic novel, justice, it’s probably him. And recently, when asked about it, he said “in a way, it’s Star Wars for adults.” Which, at first blush, sounds cool (lasers and spaceships with wanton sex and violence!), but it belies a frustrating intellectual divide when it comes to fiction, particularly genre works.

Take Game of Thrones, which I’ve heard described as The Lord of The Rings but for grown-ups. Which, sure, makes sense. Both are epic fantasies, but Thrones has a more dubious depiction of morality, a stronger emphasis on politicking, and, of course, the sex and violence it’s infamous for. It’s a fair description. But, implicit in the comparison, is the idea that The Lord of The Rings is not for grown-ups and is thus a kid’s story, and a kid’s story not particularly suited for adults at that. In other words, if Game of Thrones is adult, then The Lord of The Rings is childish.

Which is blatantly untrue. Sure, I first read and loved Rings as a kid, but the books and films resonate as much, if not more, today as they did fourteen years ago. Rings might have a clean-cut approach to the idea of good and bad, but is that any less appealing to an adult than what we get in Thrones? Isn’t there something to be said for a story that works well on different levels?

As a side note, it’s kinda ironic too, given than when Rings first came out it was unique for taking fantasy tropes like wizards, elves, and dwarves and putting them into a more mature context.

So Star Wars. George Lucas himself described the movies as basically being for kids. Which is kinda true, even if the prequels spent an odd amount of time discussing trade tariffs. But that doesn’t mean it’s just for kids. The story of a nobody leaving her home planet and finding herself to be more powerful than she ever imagined is as fun as an adult as a kid. Because the Star Wars films don’t talk down to they audience, they doesn’t feel geared too heavily to one audience. In other words, just because a movie works for kids, doesn’t mean it’s a kids movie.

I think there’s an overcompensation here when it comes to science fiction and fantasy works. Because these genres are seen as being less serious than, say, a period piece or a capital-d Drama, there’s a need to make them seem grown-up so as to not be laughed off. Game of Thrones, with its incest and child marriages, gets lauded as showing the gritty realism of a fantasy world that Rings glosses over. And maybe Villenueve’s Dune’s Arrakis will have all the harsh brutality of desert world that we never saw on Tatooine. But isn’t there room for both? Can’t we have more adult-orientated works without dismissing others as childish?

I describe The Last of Us as a grown-up video game. Not because video games are just for kids, but because it goes places most games don’t; its rich exploration of grief and loss aren’t the sort of things you’d find in Halo or even more adult-intended games like Spec Ops: The Line. The pleasure of the game (although The Last of Us can be a decidedly unpleasant game to play in places) comes from having the emotional maturity for the themes to really resonate. That’s not to say games intended for a younger audience like Uncharted or, why not, Mega Man Zero 3 are inherently lesser because they don’t go where The Last of Us goes; rather they’re different games and great for different reasons. I love Mega Man Zero 3 and its epic story as much in my mid-twenties as I did at thirteen.

I’m looking forward to this new adaption of Dune. I’ve been meaning to reread the book and it is one of the grandfathers of space opera as we know it. And of course I’m rooting for Villeneuve and I want the movie to be good. But I think this impression that the more romantic takes on genre fiction are childish is, well, childish. A story can be uncomplicated and romantic but still resonate strongly with an adult. And as an adult, sometimes I want a story uncomplicated and romantic.

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Violence in Video Games

The first trailer for The Last of Us Part II is haunting in its tranquility. We’re treated to shots of the desolated post-apocalyptic world where nature’s reclaimed a neighborhood. Inside a house, Ellie strums a guitar, singing “Through The Valley,” a take Psalm 23. Recently killed bodies lie around the house and Ellie herself is splattered with blood. Joel confronts her at the end, asking if she still wants to go through with it. Ellie’s answer? She’s going to kill every last one of them.

There’s little movement in the trailer beyond Ellie playing the guitar and Joel walking through the house, but it evokes the mood of the first game with its contrast between brutality and serenity.

A second trailer just came out, and this one might just be the opposite of the first. It’s a single scene between six characters and it is vicious in its depiction of violence. Two guys get shot with arrows. A woman is strung up in a noose, another has her arm bones shattered with a hammer, and a third gets impaled in the side of her head (unrelated: cheers to Naughty Dog for their diversity). It’s brutal and, at times, hard to watch. The trailer, like the first The Last of Us, doesn’t shy away from the garish nature of its violence. In short, it’s a lot to take in.

Naturally, it raises the question of whether or not video games should even have this sort of violence, and, in addition, whether or not it glorifies brutal hyperviolence. The first question is based on the idea that video games are fundamentally a medium for kids; there wouldn’t be any question about this sort of content in a film or a book. If we’re going to have a discussion about violence in video games, it’s important to agree that video games, like any other medium, can be targeted to children or to adults. The Last of Us, and its sequel, are rated M, the equivalent of an R-Rating in film. These games are not meant for kids in the first place.

It’s also key to realize that games are, by nature, more visceral. You’re not watching someone get killed, you’re doing the killing (via a digital avatar). The player is, oftentimes, not passive in the action unfolding on screen. A lot of the time it’s a result of what the player does.

But video games are a form of art, and as with any, there are different ways to depict something. A game like Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel revels in its over-the-top violence. Bullets fly everywhere as you mow down villainous cartel members, get a bigger gun and limbs go flying off; it’s violent to the point of being cartoonish. There’s no second thought paid to the bloodbath, as there isn’t in films like The Expendables and Commando, they’re different beasts from, say, Drive.

Compare that to The Last of Us, a game which refuses to let you enjoy killing. If you’ve downed an enemy, be it through bullets or a metal pipe, and you go in for the kill with your bare hands (to save on supplies), the fallen enemy will sometimes beg for mercy. Not in a way that makes you, the player, feel mighty, but in a way that makes you feel like a monster.

The immersive interactivity of video games gives the genre a great deal of space to explore themes like violence. Take Metal Gear Solid V, a war game that’s vehemently antiwar. You play as Venom Snake, the leader of a private military company who is hellbent on revenge. Throughout the game you can pour funds into R&D, getting cool new rifles, shotguns, and rocket launchers (and more!). These weapons can, in turn, be used to kill enemy soldiers. But playing aggressively — killing everyone, executing wounded enemies, running over wild animals — and over time the piece of shrapnel lodged in Snake’s skull will grow into a horn. Keep it up and he will be permanently drenched in blood, not just in gameplay but in cinematic cutscenes too. If you have a tendency towards violence, MGSV doesn’t let you forget that you’re a killer.

The new trailer for The Last of Us Part II isn’t a fun watch. It’s not exactly the sort of trailer that would really entice any newcomers to the series either, given that it’s quite obtuse with any sort of details. Rather, it serves as an addendum to the thesis of the first game and trailer: survival is a brutish thing and there is no joy in violence. If Ellie is indeed set on a path of revenge, then Part II will not let her (and by extension, the player) forget what that means. There is a space for this sort of violence in video games, and, with their special ability for immersion, games can comment on it, just as any other form of storytelling does.

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Can Art Be Fun?

I’m still reading a bunch and my current book, Extra Lives, is essentially critical theory on video games as literature. This divide between what makes something ‘art’ is something I’m kinda big on, so it’s a fascinating read. There’s one thing that Tom Bissell says which struck me: that because video games must be, by nature, fun, they’re seen as being less artistic or literary than other mediums.

Which, well, kinda has a point. When was the last time you went to an art museum and had fun? And not the sorta fun you get from the unintentional humor of some paintings, but actual ‘fun’ (which is really hard to describe, has few cross-lingual analogues, and was explored heavily by Huizinga, but bear with me). Chances are slim that unless you’ve seen a particular statue of a man punching a horse in Vienna, you haven’t, and even that monument to equine assault was probably intended as serious. See, ‘high’ art is meant to inspire ponderings, not for you to have plebeian fun. You stand there, think, say a couple ‘mmhmm’s for good measure, and move on to the next one.

But that’s art, like art art; what about, say, books? The divide is even more stark there. No one’s gonna argue against Ulysses as a literary masterpiece, but at the same time it’s hard to describe it as being truly ‘fun.’ Enjoyable, maybe, but much of that pleasure probably stems from a mixture of latent masochism and the sunk cost fallacy. That and, y’know, trying to sound intelligent. But besides Ulysses (which I legitimately love), there are other Great Works by, say, Hemingway or Melville that you’d be hard pressed to describe as being legitimately enjoyable in and of themselves, especially when compared to ‘lesser’ genres like science fiction and fantasy. Point is, the Great Works can’t bother with the frivolities of fun-ness.

You even see this in comics, arguably already a ‘lesser’ form. Watchmen is heralded as one of the best comics ever and is all doom and gloom. Compare it to Sex Criminals, which is much brighter, much funnier, and much cruder, but takes its story no less seriously. Though Criminals is held in some esteem (TIME named it comic of 2013), it’s seen as being nowhere near as literary or iconic as Watchmen, perhaps due to its adult subject matter and relative newness, but probably also because it’s so goofy. Never mind that it deals with depression, intimacy, and a host of other things, it’s too silly and too fun to be considered serious art.

Which brings me to games. If a game’s not fun, you’re not gonna play it; plain and simple. Games have to be enjoyable on some level to maintain player involvement. Thus gaming becomes a very visceral experience, whether it’s your curiosity that’s been piqued by Gone Home, the sheer beauty of Journey, or the exhilaration that comes from fighting Covenant in Halo. It’s experiential on a level that no other medium is, and thus has to make the audience want to experience it for the sake of the experience (as opposed to, say, the story or visuals).

And here is where video games run up against the brick wall of literary merit. Games are, like Sex Criminals, seen as being simply too fun to be real literature. No matter how serious they are, by virtue of being leisurely they can’t be art. The Last of Us is a gripping story about fatherhood, loss, survival, and so much more that the player is forced to experience rather than just observe. Even when it’s at its darkest and bleakest, it remains ‘fun’ to play in the sense that the game works. No, the violence of the game mayn’t be enjoyable per se, but it holds your attention and makes you want to keep going. But because The Last of Us is ultimately a piece of software that’s developed and patched rather than born out of pure artistry like, say, a book; it’s relegated to being mere diversion. And because of that, it can’t really be art.

Which is a bummer. Because I think art should be enjoyable on at least some level. That much of what makes comics, well, comics is that it’s illustrated shouldn’t be a detractor, just as in order for a video game to work it has to be on some level fun. Writing off games because of that would be like lambasting books because you’ve gotta turn the page, or disliking Aaron Sorkin’s work because you insist on watching it with the sound off. Let’s get off our high horses and be willing to afford fun mediums their due; games can have all the mindless glee of Michael Bay (Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel) and the melancholic tenderness of The Fault in Our Stars (The Last of Us: Left’Behind*).

‘cuz hey, let’s enjoy it.

*Writer’s note: The Last of Us: Left Behind is arguably superior to The Fault In Our Stars, but I’m having trouble thinking of a good comparison. Blue Is The Warmest Color is remotely somewhat thematically related, but nowhere near as poignant as Left Behind; recent romantic films like About Time may be as tender and sweet, but they lack the beautiful tragedy of The Last of Us’ DLC. Perhaps Left Behind is remarkable on its own, not just as an extension of a game or as a story, but for being a piece of literature that is, frankly, incomparable.

But that’s a rant essay for another week.

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But What Does It All Mean?

When The Lord of The Rings was first published, there was a lot of talk about its relation to the second World War. It got to the point that in the foreword to a later edition, Tolkien explicitly said that no, it was not in any way an allegory of World War Two. Tolkien wasn’t a huge fan of allegories, to the point where he usually considered them detrimental to the story (and also the biggest flaw of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe). Rather, he liked the idea of ‘applicability’; there is a point to it all, but it’s one for the reader to make up.

The Lord of The Rings does have major themes: the smallest can accomplish the biggest, teamwork over competition, war is bad, good wins; but there is no direct reference which gives it more latitude and reach. By opting for applicability, Tolkien gave Rings the leeway to mean more than he could have hoped; letting the book’s audience decide what they think is the most important part. Stories that dispense with an agenda allow more breadth of interpretations.

Like The Last of Us, an absolutely beautiful game. Is it about fatherhood? And if it is, what is it saying about it? Because the logline of protagonist Joel’s arc is inherently non-judgemental (a broken man who lost his daughter twenty years ago will go to extreme lengths to protect his newfound surrogate), it’s up to the audience to decide whether or not Joel is justified in his actions, let alone right. Is he doing what a father should? Or is he a monster playing at actually being someone decent? I love reading commentary on the game and various people’s takeaways. There’s room for discussion that makes the game so great.

Ulysses is another story like this. There’s not much plot, there’s not much in the way of a clear theme neither. The takeaway I got (and wrote a paper on) was that it is a book that lets you live as someone else for the altogether-too-much-time you’ll spend reading it; though everything external mayn’t be resolved, the book itself has the resolution that comes at the end of a day. But that was my takeaway; a friend of mine found more weight with Leopold Bloom’s interactions with women, another just plain hated the book. This space in interpretation is what lets us spend hours loudly discussing fictional characters’ sex lives over pizza and beer.

But being open to interpretation doesn’t mean ambiguous. Though the justification of Joel’s actions and long-term implications of Leopold Bloom’s day are up in the air, the events are clear. There’s no attempt from Neil Druckmann to obscure what Joel’s motivations are, and even though James Joyce makes Ulysses incredibly dense, it is possible to extract clear story details. Having no meaning is different from having many meanings. A story needs substance for it to have applicability. There are far less people who feel that “I Am The Walrus” describes their life than those that feel that way about “Here Comes The Sun.”

At the end of the day, one thing I love about applicability is its freedom. I don’t think stories should preach at you, they should be designed to entertain and let the reader experience and feel something they wouldn’t ordinarily. Firefly will forever be dear to me because it’s about life on a ship and Iron Man 3, way I see it, is a story about identity. Someone else will like (or hate) them for different reasons, and others will find my interpretations deeply flawed. But that’s the beauty of fiction. The story’s there on the page, on the screen, in the panels, prepared by the writer for you to understand in your own way.

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Linear Versus Open World

E3 was this week, which means most major video game companies were showing off the upcoming games they have lined up. There’s a lot to be excited for: Star Wars Battlefront looks great, Dishonored 2 is getting Emily Kaldwin as a protagonist, Kingdom Hearts 3 is finally in development. But me being me, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and the glorious gameplay demo they showed off is what I cared about most.

The game looks great, showing again why Naughty Dog is one of the best in the industry. Telling too is the discussion surrounding the game The Uncharted games, like the more recent The Last of Us, is incredibly narrative focused. More so than role-playing games — traditionally the story based game — Naughty Dog’s recent slew of action adventure games have been all about the story. Furthermore, the games are very linear. Where Final Fantasy VII had side quests, Uncharted keeps going in one direction. You’re basically playing through a movie.

It’s a direction that Neil Druckmann, A Thief’s End’s creative director, deeply believes in, even if that’s not where many other major studios are going. There’s a tendency towards the open world, where games put players in a massive world for them to explore. Bungie left Halo, a very linear shooter, to make Destiny, something that looks a lot more like an RPG with hints of an open-world. Ubisoft’s flagship Assassin’s Creed series lets players roam the ancient world, finding their own fun and pursuing optional objectives. The player doesn’t have to have Ezio continue pursing the Borgias, instead they can recruit more assassins or collect money to improve equipment. Unlike Uncharted, they aren’t forced along a single, linear path.

This is arguably one of the great potentiality of games. Players can do whatever they want and craft their own narrative out of a sandbox. Rather than being shepherded along a preset path, players can strike out and find their adventures. Games, after all, let the consumer have a lot more interaction with the story than a movie or book. Letting players explore takes full advantage of the medium.

But it doesn’t always work narratively. Pacing is incredibly important when telling a story. The audience can’t get bored halfway through or even distracted from the central core. I think this is where open world games come up short. I enjoy the Assassin’s Creed games for what they are: relatively mindless adventure games with some great conspiracy theory set dressings. But more often than not I get waylaid by exploring or doing side-missions and going after treasure. It remains fun enough, but they don’t exactly bring me in closer to the main character’s arc. I couldn’t care less about what Ezio was up to in Turkey, it was more fun to explore Constantinople.

Naughty Dog is instead opting to bring players into a narrative and let them experience it first hand. Games can let you live as someone else and experience things you usually don’t. What Uncharted and The Last of Us do so well is let players live a different life. The Last of Us had me feel like a father, Uncharted 2 let me be an action hero. More than that, though, these are characters we care about. By keeping the narrative and the action zeroed in, the players isn’t allowed to be distracted by side quests. Rather, the character and story remain front and center and with them a genuine emotional experience.

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Yet To Do It Again

I’ve only played The Last of Us once. Well, only played it through all the way once. I started a New Game+ about a year ago, but still haven’t finished it. It’s odd, I know, considering how much I write about it (plus two final papers and counting). Oh, I play the multiplayer every now and then and I do look up cutscenes for reference, I just haven’t played it through again.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to; it’s just a big commitment. Not time-wise (though there is that), but emotionally. The Last of Us hit me to my core. It was a game that really affected me, one of those experiences that stick with you. Every time I went back to the story I knew what I was in for and, well, I guess I wasn’t sure if I was ready.

Not everything’s like this. I wanna give BioShock: Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line (both plenty dark and intense games) another playthrough if/when I have the time. Halo: Reach I’ve played the story a bunch of times, as with the Uncharted games and several others. So why not The Last of Us? I guess it’s similar to how I feel about Fruitvale Station. Again, loved the movie, not sure if I could watch it again for a good long time. It really stuck with me. Maybe I can’t easily go back to The Last of Us or Fruitvale because of the emotional commitment.

But what about something that’s not gut-wrenchingly sad? I’ve only watched Firefly all the way through three times. I’ve seen some episodes more, watching with friends and such, but only sat down to watch the whole series three times. Which I weird, because I love the show. Firefly, I think, is because it can be deeply personal. It’s the sort of thing that’s treasured and loved.

Which, again, doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’ll watch The Avengers or The Princess Bride on a whim, both movies I love. So why is Firefly this exception? I think this makes Firefly like The Last of Us here. I love both, and I enjoy both (I wouldn’t say watching Fruitvale was enjoyable, but it was still great). The thing is, I’m incredibly attached to both, and very much invested. I guess it’s not something I can take lightly.

So is this good? As you may have noticed, The Last of Us has had incredibly staying power woth me, and I keep up with any news concerning it. Firefly remains one of my favorite shows and I will quote it incessantly in conversation. So yes. They’re incredibly important and special stories to me. In that sense then, they succeed. I don’t have to watch them a lot, but they’re still there.

Apologies for the short and rambley post this week. Been swamped with a lot of pre-production stuff this week. And I’m still trying to find time to play Destiny.

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