I just finished playing The Last of Us, and I feel compelled to write about it. I know this post won’t resonate with most of you, but The Last of Us has given me so much to think about, that I don’t really mind. The Last of Us is a zombie-survival video game. That’s what it is. You play as a hardened smuggler who has to protect an orphaned child. It’s also the first game that has made me cry.
I have a stress-knotted neck from this game. We say I have zombie cruft. The undead are horrid. The humans are worse. I had the subtitles on, because it’s hard to hear over gunfire–and at one point a human committed something so tragic that I said, “Oh my god!” And right then, the sentence appeared on the screen. This was clearly because a character had said the same thing. But the confluence felt right–because it also felt like the game had heard me, that it had registered my line, because I too was a living part of the story. It’s the dialogue and the resulting relationships that give a player such a profound connection to the game. You care about that little girl. And among all the alternating shooting and gnawing, you realize that you’ve walked out of a video game and into a cross between Blood Meridian and True Grit.
Now, the ending fails. In my head, I’ve already rewritten it. The ending abuses the players, the characters, and maybe also the story’s own rules. It made me mad. In fact, it made me indignant. Poor James heard about it for half an hour–and you’re hearing about it now. I can’t say any more without crashing into whole stacks of spoilers, but I will mention that even in my disgust, I admire the story’s attempt. This is the first game that has ever gotten me talking–even critically–about character and narrative. (To say nothing of player rights–which is an area that is completely new.) What I mean to say is that The Last of Us asks a person to treat it as serious fiction. Regardless of its flaws, it exists as art. And that, dearies, is cool. That is Mario-smashing-into-bricks-and-having-Athena-come-out-of-his-head cool. The Last of Us is alive. For some of that very reason, I don’t recommend it for children. Nor do I recommend it for people who most deeply care for the welfare of children. The game is disturbing for what it shows–but it is astonishing for what it promises.
(Originally posted January 10, 2014)