When the curtain closed on E3 2012, it seems many let out a wholly unfulfilled sigh. If you were one of them, the most I can offer you is the Bad Santa quote of “they can’t all be winners.” What became immediately evident was the short list of luminaries that stood out and comforted many among said weary set. Games like Beyond: Two Souls, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed III, and finally The Last of Us.
The coverage of The Last of Us prior to E3, left a lot to the imagination, but generally looked to be yet another strong title from a developer on the rise. It appeared to be a zombie game trying like hell not to be a zombie game, and a Naughty Dog game trying like hell not to be a Naughty Dog game. There was to be grit, limited resources, and a post apocalyptic story. But these were still the people who made the walking genocide of Nathan Drake into something plucky and maybe even uplifting (to some).
The story of Naughty Dog seemed to be rooted deeply in the story of Uncharted. From modest means, this generation’s great treasure hunter arises and exterminates evil with extreme prejudice while alternately attempting witty or meaningful banter. No matter how many necks he stealthily snaps or how many times he fears for the lives of his loved ones, there’s usually That Uncharted Moment. The Uncharted moment. The one where someone, usually the protagonist, makes a joke that makes it seem like everything’s a-okay and nothing is fucked. After three successive games, this unwavering joviality seemed all but embedded in the developer’s DNA.
Prior to E3, our only means for gauging The Last of Us came from various trailers. Were there some dark situations? Absolutely. Was it obvious you were gonna mess people up six ways from Sunday? Definitely. Could you accurately guess the degree to which ultra violence in the name of survival would be displayed at E3? Probably not.
What was revealed during gameplay footage actually reminded me of a little PlayStation 2 title called Manhunt. In Manhunt you’re a con being hunted for entertainment by depraved psychos, and you basically need to dispatch ‘em with whatever you get your hands on. This could range from shards of glass to plastic bags. Given the reality TV structure, you were actually rewarded for taking the time to kill with extra brutality. The intent and function of violence are completely different, but the degree to which you mutilate and destroy your adversaries seems to connect the two.
As you might imagine, the game was called everything from deeply disturbing to murder porn, both inside and outside the gaming community. If you want to get an idea of the things that were said about Manhunt, it might even be helpful to reference threads covering The Last of Us on NeoGAF, as history is repeating itself a bit. The big distinction between the perception here is that there remains immense mainstream buzz about Naughty Dog’s latest, even after the ultra violence reveal, while Rockstar’s snuff game was recommended or anticipated only with major qualifiers attached.
While the purpose of the violence is, as I said, markedly different, should that be enough to negate the fact that you slowly choke to death, bash the skulls in, and eventually vaporize the faces of photorealistic NPCs? Is this further complicated by the fact that said NPCs will, at times, beg for their lives before you do these heinous things to dispatch them? If you’re anything like me, the whole thing is bound to make you a little uncomfortable and possibly even squirmy. At first, at least.
No, I haven’t become another desensitized statistic, but the very nature of this game planted a tiny little seed, and I think I get it now. This is the video game equivalent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
This sounds stupid, right? A “duh” moment masquerading as a revelation. But think about it for a second, and think about what this means to video games. You’re being given the impetus to kill, but not for the sake of entertainment. This isn’t supposed to be fun. Naughty Dog is crafting a difficult, brutal, painful game where the characters are aware of the terrible things they’re doing. Ellie even makes mention of this in the demo, awkwardly complimenting Joel on “all the killing and stuff,” after an especially gritty affair.
The key difference between The Road and The Last of Us and, in my humble opinion, its advantage, is the way video games are digested. Rather than a straight one way journey of information being delivered and received through written words on the page, The Last of Us makes you complicit. If you want to see how far things go or truly even where they go, you must raise your virtual hand and do what you must in the name of survival. You’re the one scrounging for ammunition in some dingy shack. The same one who dispatched the previous occupants of said shack before they could do God knows what to you and the young girl you’ve been charged with assisting. You may have read The Road, but you didn’t write The Road. While playing through The Last of Us, you’re transformed into Cormac McCarthy. You decide what must be done in order to maintain your existence, and you’re likewise responsible for the execution.
When was the last time you played a game where the central theme is as ugly as survival by any means necessary in no uncertain terms? Again, it probably sounds stupid, as you aren’t exactly beating many games by dying. (Save for maybe Fallout 3. Spoilers.) But usually survival is merely an underlying instinct. You know dying means redoing a stage, but not dying isn’t the same as surviving. When you use the word “survive,” it seems to imply very concretely sheer necessity above all else. It’s as basic an instinct as you can get. So when you’re aiming a bullet tube at your adversaries, moseying around for collectibles, deciding which skill tree to invest in, or weighing the merits of whether to take the shotgun or the sniper rifle, you’re living life a little too extravagantly for survival to really come into play.
Moreover, if you have options, again, the thematic resonance of the word survival is lost. Survival is about need, not want. In The Last of Us you need to turn your foes into pulp, because if you don’t they’re likely to do it to you. They might beg once the upper hand is yours, but survival doesn’t exactly encourage mercy or trust. Survival is doing what you absolutely must do to continue existing.
Which I suspect you understand by now, and is all well and good, but what’s the point? Well, naysayer living in my brain, the point is that one of the classic earmarks of art is that it doesn’t have to be pleasant. That’s one thing that separates art and entertainment. The Last of Us is still a ways out and totally an unknown, but it seems that with its focus on the dark elements and its lack of Fun with a capital ‘f’, this is going to be a title that explores video games as art more tactfully and conceptually than any previous title. Like The Room and the Piss Christ photograph before it, The Last of Us looks likely to challenge rather than conform. Despite my initial uneasiness, this game is officially on my radar, as I feel it should be for anyone interested in the Video Games As Art discussion.