Monday, July 15, 2013

Joel Is Insane - The genius of The Last of Us

One of the strongest aspects of The Last of Us is the effort put in to ensure the violence is never desensitized. You’re constantly reminded...that your acts of violence are cruel and brutal, and no matter the justification, it’s still the worst form of human expression. This works to re-frame the meaning of “survival at all costs,” the mindless drive to exist becomes it’s own form of zombification.” -

Ah, The Last of Us. Isn’t it great that gaming culture has finally gotten a game worthy of being art? Exempting all those other games, this is the first true work of art that gaming culture has made. Not only art, a masterpiece. And like a true masterpiece, every single bit of the game combined and supported the central themes of the game. Even the parts you might have thought weren't important to the themes, the parts you thought were completely ridiculous and antithetical to the entire story, even those parts were just part of the genius of this serious narrative.

“I wouldn’t be the only person to wonder aloud if Naughty Dog’s fungal zombie apocalypse simulator is the first instance we’ve had of video game literature.” -

Take Joel for example. A strong, sensible man, beaten cynical by the harsh world around him, who still has the capacity to love. And also completely insane.

You remember how, late in Summer, Joel got behind a sniper rifle with infinite ammo and shot humans that chased after him and his companions even though Joel had already single-handedly killed half their forces already? Remember how those enemies didn't seem to pay attention to Joel with his sniper rifle and focused solely on the small group of people who trying to run away from them? Remember how they were so focused on killing this small, inconsequential group of people that they even brought in their armed vehicle to kill them? Remember how the driver of this armed vehicle, safe inside the car from sniper fire, got out of the car so he could throw a molotov, giving sniper Joel the perfect opportunity to shoot his head off? Remember how stupid you thought that was?

Well you were FUCKING WRONG.

It was just another indication of how genius the narrative was. See, those obviously didn't exist. Obviously, they only existed in Joel's head. Obviously, Joel has been so thoroughly disturbed and traumatized by 20 years of nonstop hardcore life-or-death survival, that he's even begun to see enemies that aren't there. Not just a few enemies, but hundreds of them, every battle he goes into a flashback to his most horrific and violent battles, where there seemed to be more enemies than he could count, and he was in perpetual fear for his life.

The Last of Us isn’t just a story game. It spends a ton of time doing what video games do best: pitting the player against dozens—nay hundreds!—of enemies.” -

In fact, those flashbacks are so pervasive that they make up nearly every combat sequence Joel participates in. Why else would Joel be able to kill hundreds of people without getting killed himself? Why else would Joel be able to sustain so much gunfire without falling, and even heal those wounds completely later with a health kit he made from nothing more than cloth and rubbing alcohol?

Why else would all the bandit camps Joel and Elle go through be filled entirely with armed men? You'd think a few of them would have to be assigned to cleaning up the barracks or cooking food or something. You'd think so many men would have at least a few women, hell, would probably need women to help fight them. You'd think that with both men and women, there'd some children as well, probably playing on the barricades or playing chicken with the pet infected they keep on a leash in the back of the camp.

Why else would Joel knock down human enemies, have them beg for their life and, while Joel is still pointing a gun at him, get up and run straight at him again?

Why else would the Infected still be considered a threat, even though a bunch of screaming targets like that would have no chance against a pack of hungry dogs, much less a group of intelligent, armed humans?

It's all indicative of how completely unhinged Joel is. And who wouldn't be, after twenty years of rugged survivalism that began with losing his old life, his home, and his daughter all in one night? With baggage like that, it'd almost be preferable to have legions of human beings to mow down, because you at least feel like you can actually protect yourself and the ones you love.

Naughty Dog’s vision for this apocalypse demands a believable everyman, not a plainclothes superhero like Nathan Drake.” -

In the end, several questions may remain regarding the story: what about the points where we control Sarah and Elle, and the sequences where Elle has the same endurance and kills just as many people as Joel does? Why doesn't Elle say anything about the clearly delusional actions that Joel takes? What determines when the  cutscenes, i.e. the rare moments of lucidity, occur?

“Oh hey, two bodies in a bathtub. Hm. Hey Joel, what do you think about all those people we killed just outside to get here?”
“I’m sorry Elle, my ears are still ringing from all those gunshots, I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”

I am confident, these questions, and any others like them, will be answered. Ultimately, with this narrative being the serious narrative that it is, it only makes sense to conclude that Joel is in fact heavily delusional and haunted by the violence of the apocalypse he has been one of many victims to. No man could go through the horrid amount of violence he has been exposed to and still be considered sane, not without being a psychotic, wholly unempathetic individual

In such a serious narrative, it would be crass and hypocritical to include such an emphasis on fragility and death in the storyline while routinely dispatching people with reckless abandon in the gameplay. It would suggest, perhaps, that the makers of this serious narrative, have a dismissive view of the death in their gameplay, and view death as important only when they say it is important in the narrative. That in fact, the game was a cynical attempt by the developers to create a narrative lauded as serious, without having to change the underlying morally questionable nature of its gameplay. That the developers view the gameplay as nothing more than an inconsequential means of lowest-common-denominator entertainment to punctuate their narrative beats. And that the supposed artistic leap this game has made in the industry, to the point that it is referred to as "The Citizen Kane of Gaming", is nothing more than window dressing attempting to conceal the underlying nihilistic murder-sprees that remains at the core of the mechanics.

But that couldn't be right, because this is a serious game.


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