Gaming and Fiction, or, I Enjoyed The Last of Us on Every Conceivable Level

I didn’t do much in the way of gaming before 2006 and I’ve never really regretted that. But few things’ reach and grasp are ever on par with one another, and by 2006 the PS3 and XBOX360 had given game developers the hardware to match their ambition. Kind of like how computer generate imaging gave George Lucas the ability to realize the full potential of the original Star Wars trilogy.

I sat down with a friend and watched him play the original Gears of War and it blew away my perceptions of what video games could be. In hindsight that notion is a little ridiculous because, let’s face it, its Gears of War, but at the time the last game I’d played with any real vigor starred Tony Hawk. 180-nollie-heel-flip-to-manual am I right? Gears had character and (melo)drama and an overwhelming sense of weight and scale. In the seven years since I first took on the locust horde the gaming industry has enhanced those elements tenfold and the results have been spectacular; Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2, Fallout 3, Red Dead Redemption, Bioshock. This generation of gaming has proven to be a wunderkind not only for the medium itself, but for media in general, and for my money The Last of Us is a perfect summation of the massive strides gaming has taken during this generation of consoles.

The Last of Us follows local sad sack Joel, a grizzled survivor in a post-apocalypse America who is tasked with smuggling Ellie, a fourteen-year-old who has known no life before the apocalypse, out of a quarantine zone in a presumably post-Wahlberg Boston and across the dilapidated ruins of America. And ruins have never looked so lovely.

#BBC

#BBC

The Last of Us is a gorgeous game, and a testament to how far console graphics have come in just a handful of years. Whether Joel and Ellie are creeping through blackened, collapsed subway tunnels, bolting through the remnants of a suburban high school or taking in the scenery of a cityscape overgrown with lush vegetation the attention to detail, aesthetic and atmosphere put the player right there with them.

That same attention to detail is put to use in character animations both in and out of gameplay. When Joel strangles some jive turkey to death it looks like muscles are being used and energy is being expelled. When Joel talks with Ellie in the moments free of immediate life-threatening danger the characters’ subtle facial expressions and mannerisms add nuance to the voice actors’ performances. Not that said acts need any assistance.

You cannot talk about The Last of Us without talking about actors and performances, which is in and of itself a testament both to the game in particular and gaming in general. In 2006 the notion of relating dramatic performance to gaming would have been entirely lost on me.

Driving. Just like real people.

Driving. Just like real people.

Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice Joel and Ellie respectively and their performances are the backbone of The Last of Us. I gave a shit about shanking the shiv out of fungus people with great stealth and subtlety because I could hear the fear and caution in Joel’s voice. Inversely, I could tell Ellie was distraught at times because she wasn’t talking. I probably spent more than 12 hours with Joel and Ellie working my way across America. By the end just as I knew how to shiv mushroom folk with a certain apocalyptic sangfroid and how the controls worked when wielding a bow and arrow I knew that even in the most dire of circumstances a relic of pre-pandemic America would invoke equal parts curiosity and disbelief in Ellie and that Joel’s nostalgia for the old world would creep up on him like a half-remembered TV show theme song.

Watching and listening to Joel and Ellie’s emotional journey unfold was every bit as captivating as playing through their geographical trek through the lavishly decaying American dystopia. Both journeys provide for phenomenal stories in their own right and together they prove a regular tour de force of thrilling shootouts, terrifying encounters and brass-knuckled emotional gut punches all culminating in a phenomenal ending that will keep you steeped in contemplation and consideration for days.

The Last of Us’ narrative is thoughtful, well-placed and engaging. It could have been a comic book, or a television show, or a movie. The Last of Us could have been a novel. But it isn’t. A narrative of this caliber is told through a video game with story beat after story beat perfectly executed and characters, themes and exposition fully realized.

In the waning years of the PS3 generation the video game has become a legitimately viable story telling medium on par with any other and The Last of Us is proof of that. Even when compared to post-apocalyptic peers in other media like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or TBS’ Falling Skies, or the multimedia juggernaut that is The Walking Dead, The Last of Us stands as the best piece of literature in the genre today.

It's downright Dickensian yo.

It’s downright Dickensian yo.

Ten years from now, when every other piece of fiction doesn’t revolve around the end of the world, looking back on the current fascination with the apocalypse and all that fascination says about this time and this place, The Last of Us won’t be a novelty footnote, it won’t be some video game, it’ll be a principal example of fiction circa 2013.

I swear.

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Deep Blue Sea and Feminism, or, Ladies are Cool Now

Full Disclosure: Mildest of spoilers for “The Last of Us” ahead.Fuller Disclosure: I’m a white guy.

When I was a kid Deep Blue Sea was the greatest film I had ever seen. What’s not to love about killer velociraptor sharks swimming around people places? But witty makos aside I distinctly remember being blown away by the fact that every female character in the main cast of the movie got totally obliterated.

I was a weird one.

Even at a young age I knew that women in movies weren’t supposed to get eaten (certainly not all of them at least), because women had their place in movies and it was rigidly particular. They were supposed to be sexily endangered and then rescued by a male costar. They were supposed to be “tough” and yet somehow simultaneously entirely nonthreatening. They were supposed to play an ancillary role in any climactic victory at the end of the movie. They were essentially very specific cardboard cutouts. But not in Deep Blue Sea!

She's a man-eater.

She’s a man-eater.

Just kidding.

Years later I found out that in test screenings of Deep Blue Sea Saffron Burrows’ character lived, but test audiences purportedly chanted “die bitch” and alas in the theatrical release die she did. Go democracy!

Point is, even as a ten year old whose only cinematic palette was animal horror I was excited by the prospect of not being able to fit lady scientists into prim and proper lady scientist boxes. Deep Blue Sea may have gone in the completely wrong direction with their female characters for the completely wrong reasons, but when that first lady scientist got eviscerated in a flooding chasm I realized I couldn’t just write off the remaining lady scientists because, for better or worse, they were actually being utilized for something other than the standard lady cutout. Sure, it was just a slightly different cutout with a shark bite taken out of it, but it was different.

Much like a super shark brain it was like parts of a story that had been long dormant and gray were now starting to light up and activate and over a decade later they’re firing up left and right. And finally headed in the right direction.

You guys, ladies are cool now.

It appears creative types across media are slowly but surely starting to realize that when you aren’t fully utilizing an entire half of your cast you aren’t fully utilizing your story. Creators are actively fleshing out their female characters and are producing far superior stories because of it. I’d call it the Cactus Effect, but I’ve never actually seen Hunger Games.

When I was a youngster the pink and yellow Power Rangers were a joke. They were dumb yo. And worst of all they were “girly” – so clearly made to check off a box on a demographic checklist that even as a five year old it was hard to ignore. Now on Saturday mornings kids can (could) see Ahsoka Tano, a young Jedi, kicking ass and taking names in The Clone Wars (RIP forever [I will never {ever} forgive you Disney]). Ahsoka isn’t a two-dimensional action figure commercial for girls. She’s a badass. Last time I checked Luke Skywalker never simultaneously decapitated four Boba Fetts. Just saying.

Movies are on their way too. Being a “strong female lead” used to eventually translate into being a “bitch” because god forbid anyone put more than two seconds of thought or creativity into what being a strong female means. Luckily that archetype is beginning to fall by the wayside in favor of women who are genuinely awesome in their own right, rather than just shapely conduits for faux testosterone.

AVIATORS.

AVIATORS.

Did you see Zero Dark Thirty? Jessica Chastain was absolutely incredible and her character was every bit as enthralling as Jeremy Renner’s in Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film. When the credits rolled on Zero Dark Thirty (or 0D30 as myself and the industry have taken to calling it) I wasn’t picking my jaw off the floor and saying “boy she sure is badass for a lady,” I was saying “she sure is a badass.”

The place women really seem to be moving into the spotlight over the last year, however, is video games. No I’m not referring to your run of the mill Halo’s and Call of Duty’s, but a staggering portion of the most critically acclaimed games over the last year owe their quality to fully-realized female characters.

Tomb Raider serves as a perfect example because looking at series’ protagonist Lara Croft’s chest throughout her various iterations serves as something of an infographic for the trajectory of heroines in what are considered male-dominated mediums over the last twenty years.

In Crofts most recent outing she was much less an Indian Jones themed stripper than she was a recent college graduate shooting vicious wolves with flaming arrows while ensnared in a godamn bear trap. And it was freaking awesome.

Of further interest is a developing theme in video games that sees the pairing of an older down on his luck man with a spry younger girl who possess some sort of inherently extraordinary trait; a humanity in a world gone to hell, an immunity to a devastating plague, an inexplicable ability to rip the boundaries of space time apart molecule from molecule.

TellTale Game’s adventure game adaptation of The Walking Dead was a favorite amongst Best of 2012 lists. Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us are undoubtedly going to be going toe to toe for 2013 honors. All three games achieve an undeniable emotional connection leaps and bounds above your average headshot hunt due almost entirely to their phenomenal female leads; Clementine, Elizabeth and Ellie respectively.

Can you argue that all three games see a dominant male figure escorting a lady about a dangerous world like an incapable wounded dove? Sure, knock yourself out. But playing through The Last of Us feels exactly nothing like babysitting. In fact it feels more in line with passing the torch: the grizzled, aging Eastwood-type guiding a new archetype into prominence, preparing his inevitable replacement.

Girl + Bow + Arrow = Badass.

Girl + Bow + Arrow = Badass.

It’s an exciting idea that promises new stories and new experiences from new perspectives and I hope against hope that it continues.

Without giving away too much, there’s a sequence in The Last of Us in which the aforementioned Ellie guides her wounded male counterpart Joel through an area swarming with hostile raiders. Joel is in bad shape. I instinctively mash the “run damnit run” button to no effect as he limps and trips and stumbles along. But, outnumbered in the face of a relentless foe, Ellie is spectacular. She runs ahead of Joel darting in and out of her surroundings and sinking lead into hearts and bellies and brains alike, her trigger finger ever-faithful whilst confronting certain death.

As I move Joel forward, slowly but surely, I realize I care more about whether or not Ellie survives than whether or not Joel dies.

Joel is a phenomenal character. I feel for him on every level. I intently listen to everything he says because everything he says is worth hearing. Joel is a blast to play, but I’ve played him before, I’ve watched him before and I’ve read him before. He’s John McClane, he’s Aragorn, he’s Jack Bauer, he’s Rick Grimes, he’s everywhere.

But Ellie? That girl is something else.