If you were to anthropomorphize the contemporary American mainstream video game, it would look, I think, a bit like a harrowingly male, shaggily haired, extremely confident 18-year-old capable of any number of astounding displays of strength or agility. Smart, too, in his way. Not incurious about things outside the realm of his immediate experience so much as oblivious to them. All the same, this young man has potentially interesting things to say. Most of us would be willing to listen, too, but for the fact that his breath smells like peanut butter and he’s wearing a Boris Vallejo T-shirt.
Despite the yada yada of video games’ growing cultural prominence, the amount of money they make (and lose), and the simple reality that maybe no creative medium has ever moved further faster, most people don’t take video games very seriously. I realize this comes as a shock to precisely no one who doesn’t play video games. Sometimes the fact that games are written off as adolescent nonsense bugs me. Sometimes it doesn’t, because a lot of games — a lot of great games — are adolescent nonsense. And sometimes I think that the worst thing to happen to video games would be for them to get taught widely in schools1 and reviewed in The New Yorker. As the novelist and critic (and gamer!) John Lanchester once wisely noted, “Respectability is a terrible thing for any art form. People wrote better novels when the cultural status of the novel was contested.”
The academicization of video games is already well under way, of course. While some good stuff is happening there — Ian Bogost is a national treasure, Jesper Juul’s recent The Art of Failure is a wonderful meditation on the dreary core of the game-playing experience — much of it amounts to the same joyless dissection that has necrotized the formal study of most other creative arts.
More than any game I can think of, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us embodies the fascinating conundrum of where video games fit, and don’t fit, into wider notions of American culture. It is a restrained, subtle, and brilliant game in which you also stomp off the faces of many dozens of fungal zombies. It will surely strike the non-gamer as unlikely that any game in which you stomp off the faces of fungal zombies could be described as “subtle,” but you can, and it is, and there we all sit, thumbs firmly inserted into butts, on our different sides of the divide.
When I first started writing about games, I followed my inclinations as a writer of prose and fixated upon the narrative aspects of games. It’s a legitimate way to look at games — if, that is, the game under examination makes any claims to having a narrative worth discussing. In time, however, I grew resistant to thinking about games primarily along these lines, especially when it comes to commercially intended mainstream games, most of which are gratuitous exercises in fantasy fulfillment of one stripe or another. Games can do a lot more than make young men feel “heroic,” of course, as tens of thousands of talented developers around the world are now proving beyond a doubt. What’s most interesting about The Last of Us is its almost fanatical determination to play with and subvert the average gamer’s fantasy-fulfillment expectations.
The story The Last of Us tells might sound silly and contrived in summary, but then many summarized stories do. (Probably all video-game stories do.) An outbreak of something called Cordyceps brain infection — essentially, the mind-controlling fungus known to afflict insects — hops the trans-species transom to terrifying and America-ruining effect. Human society violently contracts and eventually turns savage, with humans killing humans over shoes and guns while hungry rings of fungal zombies seethe all around them. The game proper begins 20 years after human society’s collapse, with a main character, Joel — his very name redolent of Old Testament ferocity — eking out a miserable existence of gun smuggling and ration card stealing in Boston after a long and (it is strongly suggested) ignoble career as a highwayman and thug. Joel, meet Ellie. Ellie is 14, damaged in ways both obvious and not, and needs to get elsewhere fast. Joel reluctantly agrees to take her. They travel from Boston to Pittsburgh, Wyoming, and Salt Lake City. Terrible things happen. A few beautiful things happen, too. Gradually their relationship deepens in ways only the most stonyhearted will resist. And then the game ends.
When the open-world Western Red Dead Redemption came out in 2010, a number of game critics — as well as the art director for developer Rockstar — cited Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian as one of its main inspirations. As someone who’s read Blood Meridian several times, I suspect this was a mild bluff. RDR and Blood Meridian take place in completely different eras of American history, and the former has no analogue for the latter’s Judge Holden, Joel John Glanton, scalp trade, or centerpiece Yuma Massacre scene. Additionally, native peoples play a major role in the eschatological violence of Blood Meridian but turn up only briefly, and benignly, near the end of RDR. The Last of Us, however, has McCarthy’s bloody fingerprints all over it, and the especial debt it owes to The Road is clear and obvious. That this makes Cormac McCarthy arguably the most influential novelist in video games today would probably send the face of the great scribe himself directly into the keyboard of his Lettera 32 Olivetti, but the rest of us are free to grin with delight.
In a lot of ways, actually, The Last of Us is a proudly and stylishly “literary” game, starting with its title, which rings with the plangent modesty of a mid-list novel from Knopf. The sparse title screen, meanwhile, looks as though it were designed by E.E. Cummings. On a character and animation level, The Last of Us does a supremely fine job of bearing down into the minds of its desperate protagonists — never have video-game eyes seemed so rich with conflicted emotions. If it doesn’t quite make the case that intense character studies can breathe comfortably within the psychologically airless confines of the action-oriented video game, this is not due to any flaws of execution on its part. There can be no question that the action-oriented video game has inherent dramatic limitations, many of which stem from the audience’s expectation of psychological realism in the face of situations — like, say, stomping off the face of a fungal zombie — that are, by definition, beyond the parameters of human experience. This is where any discussion of games-as-narratives hits a nasty patch of ice. Video games give their players a prescribed number of actions, a rule set, and obstacles that can be overcome only by expressing those actions within that rule set. No narrative can function within such artificial constraints without bumps and tears and weirdnesses, particularly if the game’s rule set involves fighting or shooting people. If it’s incredibly hard to depict believable reactions to experiences few human beings have ever faced, it’s probably impossible to depict believable reactions to experiences no human being has ever faced being repeated once every few minutes for 15 hours.
On a narrative level, The Last of Us is about survival, but this is not what makes the game such a model of subtlety. Most contemporary video games are about survival, however facilely. What makes The Last of Us subtle is how rigorously its mechanics and rule set express and emphasize the horror and tedium of survival. One of the things you find yourself doing a lot in The Last of Us is finding ladders, which are used to ascend to higher ground. Another thing you find yourself doing a lot is searching for rags and rubbing alcohol to craft med kits. Another thing you do is wander into abandoned houses and rifle through drawers and cupboards in the hopes of finding scissors and masking tape, which you can use to make a shiv. And don’t forget about the planks of wood, which are awesome to bridge gaps between buildings. And hey, look over there! A brick. The point is, The Last of Us makes you search and scrape for depressingly common objects, which you put to depressingly common use. It doesn’t bother to dress up, make “interesting,” or in any way glamorize this aspect of the game, or cater at all to what the majority of its audience will want to do, which is feel powerful and heroic. It’s pretty hard to feel powerful while carrying a ladder. It’s pretty hard to feel heroic while sneaking up on an enemy and savagely beating him to death with a brick. Indeed, the depiction of melee violence in The Last of Us is as upsetting as anything I’ve played. Significantly, this kind of violence is almost always one’s last resort.
There are plenty of guns in The Last of Us, and one critic is already on the record saying there’s too much shooting in the game. I confess this was not my experience. For the vast majority of my playing time, my bullet total was in single digits. I often wished there were a hell of a lot more guns, especially when I was hunkered down behind a wall, hot-eared, my heart hammering away, while I waited to sneak to the next piece of cover, because there were five enemies I could see and I had only three bullets to my name. Many gunfights can be avoided, but whenever gunfights do erupt they play out in frantic, unpredictable ways. You run a lot, and hide a lot, which tend to be no-nos in modern game design, as they’re thought to (and do) disempower the player. This is to say nothing of the rattlesnake cunning of the game’s enemy AI. If you’re in a gunfight and don’t move, you’re flanked in seconds and dead soon after that. When you pull a gun on an unarmed human enemy who happens to be sprinting straight at you, he’ll do something highly unusual for a video-game enemy that happens to be sprinting straight at you, which is sensibly turn around and run. A few human enemies, when you knock them down, will beg for their lives. While this last touch seems a little too self-consciously “gritty” for my taste,2 The Last of Us mostly stays clear of heavy-handed moralizing about violence. The few times it does succumb to heavy-handed moralizing about violence are, not coincidentally, the least effective moments of creative director Neil Druckmann’s otherwise excellent, sensitive, and understated script.
As does a scene, late in the game, in which torture is shown to be brilliantly successful in getting someone to talk. The person being tortured has absolutely zero reason to believe he’s not going to be killed by his torturer (indeed, he soon is), which makes The Last of Us‘s witting or unwitting endorsement of torture as an effective tool of interrogation all the more unforgivable.
If you play a lot of video games, you’ll probably be shocked by how stripped of obvious gameisms The Last of Us is. The game never tells you when it saves or when a new chapter begins. The HUD is hieroglyphically austere. Its bestowal of in-game trophies that communicate player accomplishment are as parsimonious as any mainstream game ever made. During the flow of action or exploration there is very little iconic intrusion, by which I mean no glowing “Go here, stupid!” indicators. You wind up getting turned around and disoriented quite a bit, which allowance stands as one of the more audacious pillars of the game’s design. For all its simplicity and mechanically meaningful tedium, however, for all its attempts to ground its mechanics in something that could be described as video-game realism (which is reality shorn of 93 percent of what makes it real), The Last of Us does have its gameisms. Many of them. Eating candy bars, for instance, restores a bit of your health. Enemies don’t spot Ellie when you’re both sneaking around, even if she happens to be squatting at their feet. Many of the game’s guards were apparently trained at the Stare-at-a-Wall Guard Training Academy.
People will inevitably complain about this stuff, but they’re unwise to, given that the removal or alteration of the above gameisms would necessarily result in a vastly more frustrating experience. Norman Mailer once said, “Style is an attack on the nature of reality.” The designers of The Last of Us put an estimable amount of thought into how their chosen medium best attacks the nature of reality. I can’t imagine that anyone making an action game in the next 10 years won’t carefully study what The Last of Us has, in this respect alone, accomplished.
I played through a chunk of The Last of Us in the company of a talented professional level designer. It was instructive. The game opens in a little girl’s bedroom. My level-designer friend walked around the space, impressed first and foremost by the convincingness of his character’s sleepyhead animation set. Then he began pointing out art assets that seemed to him particularly well made. “That,” he said at one point, “is an amazing fucking beanbag.”
As The Last of Us‘s prologue went on, we realized we were playing one of the most astoundingly realized and dread-drenched opening sequences in the history of the medium. As the action shifted from a series of bedrooms to a downstairs living area and then to a moving vehicle, my friend said, over and over, “How the hell did they do that?” Once we were in the moving vehicle: “Wait a second. You can turn her around in the moving car and look out the back window? Do you know how expensive that is?” The game shifted to a Boston containment area. “Jesus,” he said, “even the trash distribution is incredible.” Eventually, though, from my friend’s perspective, at least, we hit a snag.
Soon after Joel and Ellie meet, the game deposits them in a small, back-alley area in Boston. It sort of looked like a cobbled parking lot. That was the problem. The more you looked at it, the harder it became to understand what this area was intended to be in its prelapsarian state. This greatly bugged my friend. He pointed out how the space was too narrow for the faded parallel parking spots on the ground: “How on earth would anyone parallel park in here? And do people paint parking spots directly onto brick? I’ve never seen that. Also, I don’t buy the parking meters. There wouldn’t be parking meters here, I don’t think. See those arches? There’s a window in one of them. Is that a maintenance or service area or what? As a window, it doesn’t make architectural sense. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it all looks great. It looks, in fact, just like a movie set.” Then my friend laughed, as though to acknowledge how deep into the barrel of nitpick The Last of Us had compelled him to reach.
From the little I know about game development, I can all but guarantee that the amount of work required to make The Last of Us is basically unimaginable to anyone outside game development. Games with this amount of detail and polish are possible only when dozens of men and women voluntarily elect to damage themselves and their lives for the entertainment benefit of strangers. To work on something — even a video game — for 12 to 15 hours a day for a year is not enjoyable or fulfilling. I have no doubt that to make this game, hair was grayed, health was ravaged, friendships were tested, and marriages were strained. Before The Last of Us, the same could be said of the Tomb Raider reboot or BioShock Infinite or L.A. Noire or Red Dead Redemption or any number of other ambitious titles. What I’m saying is that these glorious games are, in real and measurable ways, born of human misery.
What’s so vexing about all this is that hugely ambitious single-player games are not even that profitable. The sales ceiling for single-player narrative games appears to be no higher than 6 million copies per platform — and might actually be somewhat lower. Again: Six million copies per Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 is the best one can hope for. The Last of Us is exclusive to the PS3; even in the event that it sells wildly beyond expectation, which I dearly hope it does, its costly production budget means it’s unlikely to make a lot of money.
Here’s a dangerously calcified game-industry assumption: For a single-player narrative game to be purchased by all 6 million members of its console’s target audience — to become a “must-have” title — it needs to hit a Metacritic rating no lower than the low 90s. To achieve a Metacritic rating in the low 90s, you must make a game that impresses critics, who by their nature crave novelty, which is the very thing that scares away gamers who buy only three to six games a year, and who are, by far, the largest constituency in the game-buying audience. To impress these critics, you often have to invest in the hardest, most difficult-to-engineer elements of game design and work your employees half to death. All of which means that game companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to impress people whose taste is unrepresentative of the wider game-playing audience and whose power to create an impression of “must-have” titles is still largely unproven. If you’re wondering how any of this is sustainable either economically or creatively in the long run, so am I. So is everyone.
Sony undoubtedly recognized from the start the hard uphill battle The Last of Us had in front of it, which means the game was probably intended as a prestige project done both for the good of the medium and to burnish studio and platform pride. Obviously, that’s a somewhat cynical way of looking at things. Less cynical would be to say, “The Last of Us is a masterpiece. Thank you to everyone who made it. I hope now you can all take a rest and spend time with your families,” and mean it.