MrMindGame commented on Video games should aim higher than Michael Bay movies"Whereas Little Bill's revolver suicide in Boogie Nights, punctuated with the title card, "80's," provoked queasy mirth, sorrow and contemplation on the spiraling excesses of American life at the dawn of the Reagan era, that Last of Us cut communicates, to me, "Fuck yeah. Killing."" Hmm...so I suppose my lingering question is is a video game not worthy of such dissection and interpretation as a film is? I believe games and game storytelling have evolved to such a point that they are now worthy of such thematic dissections as movies. To be honest, and I don't mean to offend but rather observe, I think your view of the ending of The Last of Us' gameplay demo is a bit simplistic and one-sided, and deserves more thought. Now bear with me here. I don't consider myself a major gamer, but I've been around long enough to understand that violent video games make up the majority current gaming market. I have played countless violent video games over the years, and it's come to a point where video game violence rarely ever fazes me. What struck me about the violence portrayed in The Last of Us is the very fact that I even took note of the violence at all. I've been through the Call of Duty's since Modern Warfare, I've chainsawed my way through countless opponents over countless hours of Gears of War, and I have never been more genuinely disturbed by video game violence than The Last of Us. I haven't seen video game violence portrayed with such gritty, grim realism that it was actually unsettling to me. It's not the actual violence itself that intrigues me so much about The Last of Us, it's the context of that violence. And frankly, that's the way that most violence in movies tends to be interesting and compelling. Would No Country for Old Men be a better film without the violence? Of course not, because violence is such an integral part of the movie's themes and plot. Of course, the violence is graphic and horrifying, but that's what makes it so fascinating, it's context in the story. Video game and movie violence on its own has become hollow and mundane without important characters for it to happen to in service of an important story. I believe violence serves the story more in a game like The Last of Us than a game like Call of Duty, primarily in the way its implemented and the general storytelling pedigree of Naughty Dog. No one has ever really lauded Call of Duty for its storytelling, and as a result, the violence has very little impact on most players. It mostly comes down to pumping bullets into faceless enemies and upping your kill/death spread, which is fine, because a game like Call of Duty doesn't need a compelling story to be successful. Developer Naughty Dog, however, has made a number of games that are universally lauded for their storytelling (most significantly, the Uncharted series), so it is fitting that their The Last of Us should serve an ulterior purpose than Call of Duty. The Last of Us takes place, obviously, in a post-apocalyptic setting, a setting that is almost defined by themes of societal collapse and the use of violence to claim power/dominance. Naughty Dog has claimed that they want their game to be less about the zombies and violence but rather the father/daughter bond that develops between the characters Joel and Ellie. From the gameplay trailer, we get an immediate sense of this relationship between the two from their back-and-forth banter; before we even get close to any on-screen violence, we get a feel of the kinship between them. When we do finally encounter an enemy gang, the video game violence takes over, but something is different about it. It didn't occur to me until well into the action scene, but there are small, subtle touches that separate it from other games. In particular, it's the realism of it. Joel is armed only with a pistol and limited ammunition. He takes down one gang member silently by strangling him and then searches his body for bullets. In a lesser game, you'd already have a 50 bullet clip and start rampaging down the hallways shooting everything in your sight. But here, you need to be stealthy, strategic, and precise with how you attack your enemies and how you use the limited ammunition at your disposal. Later on, Joel takes a gang member hostage at gunpoint and confronts another enemy non-playable character (NPC). The NPC yells at you "you fucking drop him!" Joel takes aim, his meat shield thrashes about and screws up his first shot. I'm going to stop right there to dissect what I believe is revolutionary for video gaming, specifically, the humanity of the NPCs. NPCs have long-served the function of being faceless targets for players to unload clips into, rarely do we ever consider their own thoughts or motivations. But here, we see one NPC showing empathy for another by demanding Joel let him go. Why does the NPC do this? What relationship do these two have that he would be compelled to try and save his friend here? Since Joel disposes of both of them within seconds, it's a question with far-reaching implications that will never be answered, but linger nonetheless. The fact that the vaguest of notions exist that these nameless, faceless computer characters have their own lives, backstories, relationships, loyalties, etc. is something that few have ever really considered in video gaming, which makes the violence you inflict on them (as the game's protagonist, no less) makes it all the more disturbing and unnerving. Skip ahead a minute or two to that final smash cut you mention so much. Personally, I thought this was one of the most effective gut-punching moments in the entire gameplay trailer. It's one of the most brutal and shockingly graphic video gaming moments I can remember in the last several years, yet I find myself returning to this moment again and again because of how effective a moment it is, despite how disturbed I am by it (the same reason one returns to, say, the hotel shootout sequence from No Country for Old Men. It's an absolutely unnerving and intense scene, one that is not necessarily enjoyable by regular standards, but so enthralling and well-executed that we can't help but love this scene). Joel is pinned down by a rather large gang member and looks like he's down for the count when Ellie jumps on his back and stabs him in the shoulder. Her brief distraction has allowed Joel to grab his shotgun and butt his assailant in the face before taking aim at him. It's this brief, less-than-a-second moment that completely sold me over. In a split second, the macho bravado of your assailant completely evaporates. He cowers beneath you, bleeding out of his nose and mouth, a hand blocking his face, barely able to utter a terrified "N-no, don't-!" before Joel splatters his brains and teeth across the floor. This is the moment that turned the entire demo on itself. I no longer felt like I was the "hero" of the story, but rather just another survivor, desperate to stay alive as he was, and took his life not because he deserved it, but because it had to happen one way or another (it's either him or me/Ellie). I have never seen a NPC avatar express such immediate desperation and terror at the prospect of death as him. I watch that scene and get the feeling that perhaps this enemy isn't a "bad guy" in the usual sense, just another survivor that happened to get in the way of Joel and Ellie's well-being, and ended up on the losing side this time. I'm left with the feeling that Joel and Ellie may have just taken the lives of half a dozen (or so) otherwise-innocent people all in the effort of self-preservation; in order to live, they must die, and that's the way it has to be. Video game violence, to me, has never felt more morally ambiguous than this. It's a life-or-death situation that doesn't leave you a lot of moral outs, but a life-or-death decision nonetheless. And life-or-death situations are a staple of the post-apocalyptic genre, which is why violence is so prevalent in it (and lends itself nicely to the video game medium). We've had games that have treated this with tongue-in-cheek sensibilities (Left 4 Dead) and games that blow up these tropes to soap opera-levels of melodrama like the Resident Evil games, but very few that take this on with such realism as The Last of Us appears to. Then you have to consider all of this grisly violence in context of what Naughty Dog claims will be the most important aspect of the story: the relationship between Joel and Ellie. We have to now consider the necessarily lengths that Joel has to go to not only to keep himself safe, but also this young girl that's under his protection, and just the kinds of things that he'll have to expose her to and desensitize her to in order to survive in this world (recall the throwaway lines after Joel molotov cocktails an enemy: Ellie: "Holy shit, Joel!" Joel: "Keep it together...") If anything, the brutality of the violence shown in the trailer makes me even more interested in the relationship between Joel and Ellie, and how they'll stay latched to their humanity in the face of such a bleak reality. The fact that Naughty Dog is producing this game is the reason I'm so confident that they'll expand on that, because they have my trust to tell a complex, multi-layered character study of these two characters thrust into an unreal situation. The Uncharted games are proof of this: a series of excellently-produced adventure games featuring a cast of unique, fully-developed and rendered characters and well-written stories and dialogue. However, whereas the Uncharted games felt more akin to the Indiana Jones series in its brash, sensational action set pieces and casual violence, The Last of Us felt very much unlike anything seen in Uncharted. The Last of Us relies more on evasion, stealth, effective use of limited resources, and, when the time comes, moments of brutal, merciless violence. To me, a game like this has the same appeal of a movie like No Country for Old Men or a book like The Road. It does not look like an enjoyable time in the usual sense, even in context of violent video games, because the violence in this game appears to have real weight, gravity, and meaning to it. Yet for all its bleakness and apparent amorality, I can trust Naughty Dog to give us characters that we can latch onto and project myself onto as a gamer, so I may experience the world of this game as the characters do (not to mention the extraordinary technical quality that goes into their games, providing some of the most realistic-looking animation and character interaction I've seen yet). By the end of the trailer, I wasn't thinking "Fuck yeah, killing," so much as...well, I don't remember, because that last cut sort of left me speechless for more than one reason.
Posted on June 29th, 2012 11:24pm