The Last of Us (2013)
We do not always have the same hand in the art we take in. Live performance, for those conscious of social mores or the price of admission, will play out before you from beginning to end, without interruption. You can only leave. Recorded art comes with a “pause” button, and a ready option to switch to something else, for a time. To proceed, however, you need only hit play, again—or to have never hit pause at all. The pictures keep moving and the sounds keep playing, and to continue rests on an omission. Any failure to act ensures the certainty of continued experience.
More rare are those mediums that trade on the participation of the person experiencing the work. Most live performances depend upon their audiences, to a degree, but as a group activity, are made far easier by the social compulsion to conform to the norms of a given event. Performances for an audience of one require more active involvement, but the input remains intermittent.
Literature, however, emphatically requires constant action on the part of its audience. The reader’s interpretive and cognitive effort is necessary to construct and make sense of the world contained in the pages. There is a reason that novels are substantially harder to read in their first pages than in the last, as words must become fashioned into faces and settings and worlds. More tangibly, a reader must move their eyes, and turn (or swipe) pages, exerting themselves willfully at every moment in order to continue the story at hand.
This level of involvement has considerable emotional effect. Where films, music, theater and television need only your permission, or acquiescence, and will continue so long as you don’t hit pause or run away, a reader of a story becomes complicit in the continuing experience. It is not something done to them; it is something they do to themselves. You must keep your eyes and your fingers moving to bring the text before you and keep the experience going. At its most harrowing, this means that you must keep reading in order to take in what you so desperately wish would not happen. At its most beautiful, this means you must actively bring the conclusion of the thing you love closer at hand.
Since the invention of cut-scenes, video games have reached to cinema to supply their narrative vocabulary. Games provide the action, controlled and pushed forward by the player, in their native tongue, and then take a breath at the rest stops of narrative, letting the story move forward. With the exception of a few efforts – themselves not necessarily making a clean break from cinematic vocabulary – games tell their stories in moments free from the input of the player.
This severing of play from narrative does not frustrate any and all efforts to tell compelling stories in video games, but it can pose obstacles to emotional investment. The cutscenes of Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, in isolation, both make for accomplished stories in classic American genres. Yet the blood in which the main characters have soaked themselves in the moments when the player has control provides a constant reminder that the game and its story do not really occur within the same world. Both titles feature turning points when the main characters face an agonizing choice over whether or not it would be right to engage in an act of revenge. This primal story undeniably loses something in the process of killing hundreds of people to get to that point. Human life is cheap, or human life is worthy of the utmost consideration, and the answer depends on whether you are playing the game or watching the companion movie. The actions you undertake appear to have no relevance to the concerns of the story the game purports to tell.
The necessary sprawl of open-world games may make that degree of control over the narrative unavoidable. Far shorter games, like the Portal series, or indie standouts like Braid, far more effectively interweave the universe in which you play and the story being unfolded within it, making each new action you take trigger progress both in-game and in-narrative, in careful proportion. That games of this nature are often puzzle-based makes a degree of sense; the narrative is quite often a mystery to be unlocked, merely a variant on the riddle more squarely at hand.
Many other games, for their part, have embraced another way of aligning the actions of the player with the shape of the story, through the use of player “choices” to drive events. This features most famously in Bioware’s Mass Effect series, which spans more than a hundred hours of gameplay and includes hundreds of individual decisions that affect the narrative in ways small and large. The cumulative experience is staggering, and the sense of agency real (and earned). These intricate games, however, also featured detailed fail-safes to ensure that the paths chosen by the player less often mean a difference in outcomes and more often a difference in emotional tenor. If you made a particular choice, maybe even the “wrong” one, it doesn’t mean that a given event won’t happen, most of the time; it does, however, mean that a certain character most appropriate to a moment might be there to act it out, rather than a generic substitute. It might mean that dozens of hours after the moment of decision a character dies wordlessly off-screen, or lives to accompany you into the next grand adventure. It might mean that your friend is alongside you, instead of a stranger, or that a person really will be your friend at the time of greatest need, rather than someone who can no longer trust you. In a lesson long understood by table-top gamers, to have the perfect story in the Mass Effect series is itself a gameplay challenge, no different, at root, from the 100% completion rate sought in something as narrative-free as Guitar Hero. An expert Mass Effect player has spent as much time grasping the ways in which to tune the narrative and hit the right note as (s)he has in setting an enemy within their sights.
The sweep and scale of games like Mass Effect, and the tendency to label them “cinematic,” can only sow confusion; games are simply not films, and will find themselves doomed in any attempt to emulate them. Games thrive on a length and decompression and patient mastery that allows us to get to know the settings and characters we meet and control gradually, at too slow a pace to match the heightened compression of film.
This does not mean that games need avoid the tools afforded to them by cinema, of course, and The Last of Us leans heavily on cutscenes in the story it tells. Complementing the scripted segments are many passages carefully cabined to provide only the most minimal control by the player over what occurs. In several of these moments, the rush of events plays out and builds in narrative intensity even as your character remains in real peril; to die at these times carries not only the frustration of the imminent return to a checkpoint, but a certain shame in letting down the stakes of the narrative situation in which you (and the character in front of you) have found themselves.
Perhaps surprisingly, in light of this, The Last of Us does not suffer from the feeling of infantilization that can accompany games that devote themselves too closely to portraying the “cinematic.” For rather than treating the player as a tool with which to stage an on-rails narrative, which can make one feel slightly useless, the mood of player and character align perfectly. The game understands that the story being told must play out within the same emotional world as the events the player has actually controlled. And in service of this, the game limits real agency and organic improvisation to the most discrete of settings: the repeated experience of encountering a group of beings that mean to do you great harm.
The organic nature of how these meetings unfold, and more amazingly, the various ways in which those events can leave you feeling—always drained, tense, amped-up, but in different ways each time—emerges from the dilemma between avoiding and confronting. The ever-recurring conflict in a game of limited resources and characters of fragile health is whether to sneak past an enemy or to try to eliminate them. Stealth and misdirection often allow for the neutralization of a potential violent encounter before it even begins, but discovery remains your character’s greatest enemy, and accidents constantly occur to confront you with it, making one’s “choice” not to engage revert quite suddenly to no choice at all—all from the wrong placement of a foot, the too-quick peek around a doorway, the raising of one’s gaze at the moment that a guard chose to turn his. Violence in The Last of Us will get to you, eventually, one way or the other, and it comes on far too quickly to ever feel routine; every survival of a team of enemies feels hard-won. The game, in the versatility of the options it presents, foretells the imminent failure of your best-laid plans. It offers many weapons that you can use to distract and misdirect; they can all also be used as a last resort to stun someone charging toward you. Every path away from danger doubles as a means to confront it, when pressed.
The gameplay, in its rough and brutal embrace of human imperfection, not only logically coheres with the experiences of the characters but places you firmly within their headspace. The story elements of The Last of Us work so capably because the feelings and perspectives of the characters becomes so much more understandable and close to your own thoughts after you have felt a modicum of the terror and desperation they have. In the parts when the story unfolds all on its own, there is a small context of your own making; the characters are haunted, but endure, and you are responsible for the specifics of how and why they made it through, to some extent, in the actions you take. You come to inhabit the characters, however, not by making them you, or by putting your own personal stamp on events, but by feeling precisely the same way they do, and growing alongside them into a hard-won outlook.
The game never loses sight of how this evolution should take shape first and foremost in the mechanics of your play. Ellie, first your companion, gradually a shared lead, step by step becomes a more effective ally in the frenzied, violent confrontations that play out. The sequences involving control of different characters differ in line with their respective styles and capacities, as do those sequences with different companions (or none at all). The commitment to the touch of the player as experiential rather than protective knows few limits; at one point, you inhabit the perspective of a character who will later die, horribly, in the arms of another character you have controlled during a frantic, failed search for safety. The characters are not special because you are controlling them, nor invincible because of your presence; you are merely for a time, with them, very close by. There are no honorable deaths in The Last of Us, nor fair killings. There is merely continuing, and the basic, fundamental complicity of the gamer in the proceeding of the narrative strengthens over time until one’s perspective subtly alters. We cannot long occupy a position without fitting it into our sense of ourselves, and fifteen hours is long enough to feel quite thoroughly what it is to be someone else.
For all that, no one would ever want to be Joel, the game’s main character; not in any world where he fits in so well. No one would want to make the decisions he makes—without your input—even if they withstand and refute even the basic premises of the justifications against them. Yet you can know what it is to be him, for a time, and if not learn something, experience something. Participation breeds empathy, connection makes understanding, and something occurs that makes the world around you seem different, somehow, because of something you were forced to help build, by your own hand.
Literature means the things we make from letters. Now it’s not just letters.