This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us.
The Last of Us treads the familiar ground of a middle-aged white man making his way through the world. There are no surprises here.
I come back to this question all the time. It is the Deleuze and the Spinoza burned into me. A game, for me, is a question of bodies. What can a video game body do? What are bodies doing inside of a video game?
The Last of Us is being praised for the ways its bodies touch one another. Joel is our fifty year old white man who protects a young white girl, Ellie. He touches other bodies quietly, with a knife in the throat or with an arrow from around a corner. He touches other bodies in a great cacophony of sound with scissors tied to the end of pipes, with his fists, with shotguns and handguns and machine guns.
Everything has weight, especially the pipe.
Machetes meet heads, fungal fingers tear jaws from heads and eyes from sockets, small hands touch needles that touch human flesh. Young women are carried by strong men. Bullets mix up soft flesh. Wounds fester. These things reach out and touch the player, touch me. They generate a new body, an affective linkage, where we watch and emote at the game for building us up and then tearing us down.
More substantial: The Last of Us is a very clever mashup of Children of Men and The Road. The story goes this way: a white man, a symbolic holdover from a culture that has literally collapsed, performs a great deed in order to plant the seeds for the future. Along the way he makes hard, brutal choices that make us (turn the sarcasm levels way up) really feel the pain of the apocalypse.
It is the product of game development time–three or four years ago these narratives were shocking and tactile and really presented something to me that I hadn’t seen over and over again. There was a time when the apocalyptic narrative, the story of living after the end of the world, felt fresh. The 20th century created a vibrant tradition of these narratives, but the past ten years have generated so many copies, so many versions of the end of the world through zombies, comets, plagues, nuclear incidents, solar flares, polar shifts, and so on that I wouldn’t be surprised if the past decade has created more end of humanity narratives than the last century combined.
The Last of Us generates something like apocalypse fatigue in me. I have watched and played and read the end of the world so many times that it just doesn’t do anything for me anymore. It doesn’t automatically generate empathy, or panic, or nostalgia in me. It just makes me weary that our fantasies are about how we can’t help but fuck everything up.
There are two groups of enemies in The Last of Us: cordycep fungal zombies and human beings. The former will track you by sound, will bit you, will infect you, will beat you to death, will (to crib on McCarthy) fill your mouth with dirt. The latter will hunt you, will take joy in your death, will eat you, will take your clothing, will express disappointment that you had no food and that your shoes were dirty.
The zombies are unpredictable. I never quite figured out how to manage them or keep them away from me. Luck saw me through most encounters (and I had to try a great many of them over and over again.)
The humans are predictable. They patrol. They fire at your last known position. They rarely stop to listen, to think, and I killed a great many of them with arrows in their backs. They died alone, quietly.
Children of Men is about a man dying so that the world can live on.
The Road is about a man trapped so far inside of himself that he can’t see the world for how it is. He dies, too.
The Last of Us is about a young woman who commits horrible acts in the name of a surrogate father who kills everyone else she has ever known because of his own selfishness. He tortures and murders and kills people who are only attempting to defend themselves because killing was a foregone conclusion; it is in the case of how, not why, that we are given an option to play things out.
The Last of Us is the culmination of storytelling for this generation. There are contextual, optional bits of narrative that tie everything together. There are scraps of world scattered around. The scope is large both chronologically and spatially. The combat features characters helping and interacting with one another. Non-player characters interact with the world. There is an economy in which all of these words trade off with one another.
The best that this console generation could muster is characters talking to one another and reliving some tried themes from novels and films.
Joel falls from a second-story onto a piece of rebar. It impales him (very reminiscent of Lara Croft). I spend quite a while following Ellie around and she escorts Joel through the halls and corridors and science labs. She kills a great many people. Joel gets onto a horse; Joel falls off a horse. Things go black.
The screen opens on a white field and then I am Ellie. I am no longer a follow-along character who sometimes helps; I am hunting a deer in the snow. I hunt and follow and eventually I learn that Joel is still alive but very, very sick.
I’m sitting on my couch and I’m sad because her story is still tied to his.
The end of the game comes around. Joel has killed everyone that Ellie knows and has finally filled the hole in his heart left by his dead daughter through torture and mass killings with nail bombs and shotguns and boots on the heads of people trying to survive. Ellie asks him a question and he lies to her and we cut to black.
Behind all of this is the beauty of humanity gone away. Streets grow over with grass and trees and vines. Entire cities are abandoned, and after a time incomprehensible to any of us viewing this, even the tall towers will be gone. There will be nothing left but leaves and fungal growth and the the occasional concrete tunnel enforced with steel left untouched by the elements. Plastic will float in stagnant water and spray paint will linger like cave paintings.
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
– Cormac McCarthy, The Road