Love and hate: A series of The Last of Us letters
Exploring how Naughty Dog's The Last of Us bleeds into everyday life.
When freelancers Leigh Alexander and Quintin Smith strike up a correspondence, they aim to analyze games in the context of their own lives. Which this time around means summer memories, talk of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and modern-day expectations of video games.
Below, they take on The Last of Us.
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: The Last of Us
Let me tell you some of the things I'll remember forever about this uncommonly warm English summer in which we find ourselves:
A couple last-ditch desperate nights in a Holiday Inn, everything I own (and Brendan's Mega Drive, which I accidentally stole, which is a story for another time) pressed up against a twin bed.
Walking with you down that vein of motorway through what used to be London's Olympic Village, where things that looked like they could be Something led abruptly to metal shutters. It's a weird, half-formed place, like a vacant campsite for industry. Like a quarantine zone.
We went running along a fetid canal in the dead heat just to see how far we could get. We found a three-story mall with a bizarre obelisk at its center making water sounds where there was no water. And then the other mall, flooded with strollers and shoppers ravenously shuttling among five-dollar dresses.
You kept saying, "This is like The Last of Us." Like, at every part. I've counted and you've said it six times since I have been hanging out with you here.
Because we're surviving, the pair of us, in unusual heat? Because it's so weird on this side of town, and we keep finding ourselves doing weird things, like carrying kiddie pools and heavy stuff down the sidewalk or trying to work out the road signs at the canal locks?
Playing The Last of Us is something else I'll remember from this summer. It has me (and everyone else) thinking about partner design, masculinity and the end of the world.
But you and I haven't talked much about it, except you keep bringing it up. The game probably has a lot to say about the times, y'know? Not just our times, but the times. I have some thoughts, but I want to hear yours first.
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: The Last of Us
You heard me mention it six times?! OK, I'll admit it. The Last of Us got me through moving house. Squatting to lift an umpteenth cardboard box, sweat stinging your eyes, is a lot more fun when you imagine you've got to leave because it's just not safe. The task of bagging the nameless metal things pinning together my Ikea furniture could have killed me. Collecting and cataloguing miscellaneous gun parts, counterintuitively, kept me sane.
I've heard it's pretty common to lock into these kind of micro-fantasies. I think the common one is looking out of a car window and picturing yourself running or flying alongside it. Ground zero for all of my more elaborate role-playing has got to be the jogging I did when I was 15. From song to song I was a commando, a wizard, a 100-foot mech. Such is the power of imagination!
Then again, now that we've got games like The Last of Us, who needs to imagine anything anymore? I remember the first night we loaded it up. You, me and Brendan locked into a stunned silence by the stark craftsmanship, the immediate horror of that intro. A silence that redoubled itself because none of us could remember the last time we'd been stunned by a game.
Ridiculously, by the end of that first chapter I could feel tears in my eyes. I was unsure whether that was the awe I was feeling, the voice acting, the scale of the misery portrayed. "TWENTY YEARS LATER," declares the game, as an unchewed Kettle chip in my mouth devolves into a starchy pad.
It was a wild night. The box wine was left untapped as we all just ... enjoyed a video game. So why haven't I discussed it since?
To be honest, I think the most notable thing about The Last of Us might be that there's not much to discuss.
It doesn't ask any questions, because it has all the answers. What would the world be like if a disease turned humans into fungal zombies?! Well, we'd probably have all the post-apocalyptic stereotypes, wouldn't we? The oppressive government, the feral gangsters, the hero.
What's The Last of Us trying to do, except be flawless? What is there to discuss?
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: The Last of Us
Who needs to imagine anything anymore? I'm sure you're only making a bleak joke. And same with "There's not much to discuss." Let me press you a bit.
You know my favorite thing to write about in games is interesting failures, and The Last of Us doesn't seem to be failing at anything, at least within the scope of its intention. So you're right to some extent. I mean, there's been a lot of discussion about the gender roles, and what the ending represents, but open questions make for interesting work. We'll get to that stuff, I'm sure.
But just now, you noted how taken you, Brendan and I were with the first 20 minutes of the game. We hardly moved — we were transfixed and awed. I think we both felt something like: This is how a game like this is supposed to feel. It was remarkable for all of us, after having been in games for long enough to've gotten largely sick of AAA's common-denominator pandering, the soullessness and indecisive visions and the legions of righteous capital-g gamers ready to say they are art.
That alone is worth discussing to me. I know I keep saying this to you, but I'd played (a little of) Remember Me right before starting The Last of Us, and I thought the bit I saw was kind of all right, and would have been "artful" if I hadn't had such fatigue of games using women's bodies as their primary art objects. Like, she escapes what fundamentally amounts to a coffin, clawing at the inside, and emerges ready to strut languidly, titillatingly, in her bodysuit. Are you kidding me?
In contrast, The Last of Us gives me the kind of young gal I could have babysat. Could have been, really. Even the first few moments, when you don't know what to expect from the game and then it dawns on you that you might be her, are a revelation: This slight, plausible person, swaying drowsily, padding blearily with sleep. I spent a good five minutes just looking at her room, which could have been my room.
Do you remember? I was like, "Wait, just one more thing," and I panned the camera up to the ceiling, and it was like, "Yep. Glow stars." Of course.
When later you had to carry her in your arms, run for her life, you could feel the weight. That's sticking with me. And Ellie hunting a deer is sticking with me. The other stuff less so.
As soon as the game began in earnest, Twenty Years Later, and you started making the Resident Evil 4 comparisons, I was kind of reluctant — not because you weren't right, which I can now grudgingly admit you were, but because something in me got a little afraid that the most important conversation to be had about this game that had struck me so much initially would be about honing third-person combat, or about "the controls," and all of that.
It's not that it doesn't matter. It's just that it's not exciting. I am intellectually bored of it, just like I'm intellectually bored of talking about what the female characters are and aren't wearing. The Resident Evil 4 thing, will you do that part for me? Then we can talk about, like, fatherhood or agency or The Road or whatever.
Do we still have that box wine?
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: Re: The Last of Us
Heh. That's why you shushed me whenever I mentioned Resident Evil 4? You were resistant to my idea that this game might be the most important touchstone, because its mouthbreathing B-movie plot would surely contaminate The Last of Us. Leon's ghost demeaning all of us with his youthful backflips.
But I think we do have to discuss Resi 4. Let me play the utilitarian scientist of zombie fiction, with my tray of gore-flecked instruments, you the quivering assistant. "We must do this," I tell you, snapping on my rubber gloves. "It's the only way." The room's bare lightbulb glints off my scalpel as I make incisions to remove the game's plot, revealing the mechanics. Never mind zombies. The Last of Us is a spiritual successor to Resi 4 in everything from the control scheme, to gun customisation, to inventory management, to its combat powered by crowd control. You're made to feel desperately outnumbered, and through your panic you have to play a terrifying game of risk / reward whereby you have to keep all your terrible enemies at a distance, but can do more damage the closer they are. Both are games that experiment, lovingly, with giving the player a bastion of masculinity to control, and a uniquely feminine AI partner to protect. But for me, what's most exciting of all is the joy both games take in their pacing.
Resi 4, like The Last of Us, is an action game that refuses to be defined by its action, a trick even BioShock didn't manage. What's that they say about New Yorkers and rats? Because in BioShock you're never more than 20 feet from a splicer. Resi 4 and The Last of Us first craft great stretches of panic — where the player learns to fear enemies that can be scattered like loose stones or packed tightly, and who can even launch ambushes that you have no choice but to run away from — and then offer stretches where you can catch your breath.
I remember Cliff Bleszinski referring to these moments as "palate cleansers," and that's what they feel like in Gears of War. Those short corridors where Marcus Fenix & Friends put the guns away and walk and talk for 20 seconds are gaming mouthwash. In Resi 4 and The Last of Us, they're grand landscapes crafted with as much love as the rest of the game. You rest, catch your breath, grateful for the game's generosity.
These are very similar games. There's just one thing missing from The Last of Us.
Resident Evil 4 actually created all of these concepts. Back in 2007, it played like nothing else. That's what made it so special. Possessing the same ferocious attitude to innovation that I'd only seen before in Metal Gear Solid games, it was just never satisfied with itself. And yes, it made mistakes, but like you say, mistakes are as rich a source of discussion as the ideas.
Now it's 2013, and we have The Last of Us, and it's simply interested in being perfect. There's actually nothing in it we haven't seen before; it's just all executed better than ever before. Which is ironic, given the game's subject matter. It's a flawless representation of flawed characters. A spotless manifestation of a disgusting world.
Or maybe I'm being unfair. If Resident Evil 4 was the work of a madman, so was its plot. A half-remembered dream of James Bond in Evil Dead. Maybe you could say that The Last of Us is as much of an innovator, but makes its own headway in the world of storytelling, not mechanics. One of the first commercial video games to tuck so much exposition into what's left unsaid, and unseen. To treat us like adults.
... Something I'm not totally convinced we deserve, considering our own place in the story is to have fun killing some 500 individuals with nailbombs.
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Last of Us
So remember over the weekend we went to the Nine Worlds Geekfest in London, and went to a panel about zombies and our cultural fascination with pandemics? The speakers rang all the right bells — talking about the human desire to know "would I be ready" for a survival scenario, disease as "the great equalizer," and even the reasons zombies work in games (a human form that is alienated, othered, without treading into more problematic class and race fears).
They mentioned The Last of Us as an important addition to our canon on these themes. I see why you're having a hard time seeing where it goes beyond that besides just generally being flawless — despite, as you saliently note, the strange contrast with a game about the aching, hard-won joy of survival asking you to kill a lot of people with nailbombs and so forth.
You're right that the advancement is narrative more than it is mechanical — my own critique of the game, of course, was titled "The Last of Us Is the Least We Should Ask of Video Games." I find it interesting that most of the work I've read about the game hinges on discussing the agency of the women characters. Is it an empowering feminist story, or are we watching the women reduced to objects within the agency of men yet again?
To me that almost doesn't matter, because the game's ending is really inventive. The game makes us see how Joel's warped paternal instinct and the needs of his damaged emotional infrastructure lead him to take Ellie's agency away, even at the potential cost of a cure for the world. We're seeing a story that criticizes the male power fantasy very directly, makes us see the nuance and consequence of Joel's (our?) desire to be a fatherly hero.
That's a flipping fascinating theme, a fascinating way to end the story. You can be cynical and say finishing the game with an open-ended question like that simply leaves room for the business-sensible sequel, but it's the first time that, to me, ending a game on an open question — Does Ellie believe Joel? What will it do to her if she knows the truth? — feels like more than that. A bold decision, a commentary.
The zombie fantasy is a fundamentally selfish thing. Everyone who imagines surviving apocalyptic disease likes to think about how they'll get to shine once the socioeconomic playing field is so sharply leveled. In this game, the desire for heroism itself is revealed to be problematic, selfish. It's about "you" getting something you can't manage to attain in a healthy world: Total control over the gross little corner you've carved out.
By comparison the plot of RE4 (we don't call it "Resi" in the states) is ... seriously, I can barely remember it. The end was an absurd mansion and ritualists murmuring in Spanish "die, die, die." You fought a giant mechanical Napoleon Bonaparte-alike. At various junctures you were assigning the president's daughter to hide in a dumpster. Or climb ladders and crawl under tables in a plaid skirt. Jeez.
To love RE4 is to be someone who can be mindblown and eminently sustained by pulling a perfect trigger again and again and again. An old boyfriend of mine ended up playing just hours upon hours of Mercenaries mode. It was numbing just to watch for so long. The Last of Us succeeded in at least suggesting there could be something to say about the human condition in all of that. Commentary on the human condition in a video game? Without butt shots? Damn.
This is sort of why I tend to resent the primacy of supreme mechanics and "gameplay" over other means of evaluating how a game works as an experience. Granted, you did much more actual playing through The Last of Us than I did; I crumple like a bit of foil in the face of that much combat stress. I don't thrive on the adrenaline, the anxiety, of having a savage clacking dread immediately trying to mount and overwhelm my body. That's the stuff of my nightmares.
But the mechanical stuff I do remember was that which reinforced the narrative: Running early on, as Joel, child in arms, feeling the sacred weight in how his body moved. I loved the actual physical inputs then as they imprinted on me what Joel is supposed to "feel like" for the rest of it all. Again, I'd never felt that in a game before. I don't think that's an invention we can significantly dismiss.
At the same time, these letters have taken us much longer than our usual correspondence does. We've had a lot of Life Stuff going on, the sort I'd take a couple grafs to illustrate to our editor if I didn't know how badly he hates excuses. But Life Stuff hasn't hung us up quite so badly before.
For some reason I think our caring for this game isn't there. We abstractly have a lot to say about it as critics, and I feel impressed, but there is no fire in me lit to crown it in any way. Celebrating a game fervently sort of suggests you want more like that, and I'm finding there's a difference between "I want more of that!" and "There should be, y'know, for other people, more like that."
You wanted to write about Animal Crossing instead, another game we've kind of burned out on and no longer really pick up. I already said what I had to say, too. Are both games, maybe, a visitation upon survival? Fantasies that you could control the world if it was yours to shape?
Are all games about that?
From: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Last of Us
I'll have you know that Resident Evil 4's option of making the president's daughter hide in a dumpster is a metaphor, for ... the economy.
OK, I got nothing. We're agreed that The Last of Us makes its headway in the world of digital storytelling. I'm just not sure it's a story we care about.
So, you're right to say the codependency between Joel and Ellie is interesting, but you're wrong calling it a theme. It's not. It's a thread, barely visible. You have to look at the game just so to see it, silhouetted against a billionth muzzle flash. The Last of Us remains, as you say in your critique, "the story of a man holding a gun at the end of the world."
The achievement of Resident Evil 4 was to put a gun in my hand, heavier than I'd ever felt. Animal Crossing gave us two a pop-up village of our very own, to tell stories of. The Last of Us is intent on telling a story. But for me, that means its peers aren't games, but the realm of apocalypse fiction, where it's much, much harder to impress.
Let's look at some of the stated influences for The Last of Us, starting with Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The story of father and son, hiking across a post-apocalyptic landscape, each of them "The other's world entire." But if you want to draw a comparison to The Last of Us that runs any deeper, we start bouncing off the invisible walls of AAA video games.
The Road's protagonist is an inversion of Joel. He's a man who cannot possibly survive, who isn't armed, who travels with a literal shopping cart full of old baggage. "You think you're going to be good at this," his wife tells him, before she kills herself. "You think you are, but you're not." The book is a fitting end to McCarthy's oeuvre, from a man who's always written about tough Americans searching for something. In his final novel, this is taken to its extreme — a blasted land where everyone is tough, but where everything is gone. The Road ends with the protagonist dying, his masculinity proving useless, his dream dead.
Children of Men is another cited influence, though apparently they were content with taking Alfonso Cuáron's action sequences and speckling The Last of Us with animals. Gone is that story's rediscovery of fascism, family and femininity. And again, Children of Men is such a powerful survival story because the protagonist cannot possibly survive.
Even within the considerably smaller field of zombie fiction, The Last of Us' contribution comes mostly from its sound designers, artists and animators, lavishing their precious fungus with more detail than any of the bandits in the game. But the zombies here really are dead. They're not an allegory. They're just an enemy. Which can be fine! Good zombie stories can, as you say, be used to question how we might cope. The Walking Dead had a lot of fun with its sampler menu of terrible dilemmas. Dead Rising and State of Decay have had even more fun, allowing players to define themselves by whether they go out of their way to save NPCs. There is none of that here.
Or maybe my frustration is simpler than all that. I'm thinking about my favourite moments in The Last of Us, now. Moments like looking up at those glow stars on your daughter's bedroom ceiling. Wondering at the relationship between Joel and Tess. Hunting a deer as Ellie, in a quiet parallel of the scene before, where Joel staggers through the building, bleeding out.
God, I remember that scene best of all. Piloting Joel's giant, leaking frame through the ground floor of the university, bouncing off walls, slumping onto desks. "I'm going to die," I thought. My heart in my throat, awestruck at the craftsmanship and power of this scene.
But he doesn't die, of course. The games industry is not yet ready to pry the gun from the man's hand.
I don't think I dislike The Last of Us for what it is. I'm putting it in context now. I dislike it for what it could have been. This is the product of the finest professionals we have. Naughty Dog's stellar roster, plus Nate Wells, art director of BioShock; Mark Davies, lead designer on Enslaved. Academy-award-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla for the soundtrack. All of these people working at the very top of their game. And we get something intimidatingly polished, but what lessons can other designers take away?
You're always telling me you find flawed games the most interesting, because you can learn about the designer as you play. Surely you're feeling like a bit like a zombie yourself — hungry for brains to chew on.
From: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Last of Us
Good morning, Quinns,
You dislike it? I think that opinion must have crept up on you in hindsight, in the time since you ate the game up and now. I mean, don't worry. That happens. Something finally Gets it Right, and you're just so floored to know it's actually possible. Then time passes, and you go, "Hang on, that's just how it should always be."
I wonder, actually, if people won't end up having the same conversations about Gone Home (which you absolutely need to play): It didn't invent anything especially, nor revolutionize. Its great innovation was simply that it showed that games can tell human stories with grace and restraint. That a game can be a love story, and touch people. It did what we always knew games should be able to do, with no weird hard lefts into dissonance or hyperbole.
It's unfortunate that feels like such a surprise, such a brand-new experience in this medium. You're right that as a piece of apocalypse fiction, The Last of Us can't especially stand up to colleagues in other media. And Gone Home's story itself is slightly too neat, too normal, which in a way is brave for games, choosing simplicity and subtlety — but also means it doesn't seem able to attain the breadth and depth of similar fiction told through other media, yet.
Yet. But this is close, and that's not the same "kind of shit, but at least better than everything else" argument reviewers usually use to praise mediocre games that have tried something a little bit new. The Last of Us is consistently taut, and consistency alone is rare enough. Beyond that, there are memories: Like the glow stars, or the other beautiful bits you mention. And I still think the refusal of a pat resolution to the relationship narrative is brave, is good.
Games where you run a dude around a 3D world have historically been less than ideal at telling stories, at communicating an emotional palette, even to the point where lots of fans say they can't do it, shouldn't do it. What can designers take away from The Last of Us? Well, look at that art and craft, for one thing. Holy smoke.
And that there's further to go with the storytelling, yes, but maybe starting small is the way. The soft shades before the bold strokes. Maybe you still come up with a story of a man with a gun for a while, but you can build on it.
I've been pessimistic on the idea that traditional AAA has a meaningful future at all, but this is a game that makes me want to change my mind. That's worth something.
Weather's getting cool. Wanna go to the mall?
Images: Naughty Dog
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan
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