Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Overthinking : The Last of Us

Serene moments such as this are rare and a welcome breather.
"Swear to me. Swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true."
"I swear."
- Ellie to Joel, The Last of Us (Epilogue)

Post-apocalyptic videogames are a dime a dozen these days. A vast majority of them (and I'm looking at you, Left 4 Dead) place a higher emphasis on the action over storytelling. After all, everyone secretly wants a zombie apocalypse. It's hard to concentrate on a well-written narrative when you're surrounded by thousands of mindless undead looking for food.

Naughty Dog's last game for the Playstation 3, The Last of Us, begs to differ. I never thought it would be possible for something of this genre to be compelling without bringing too much drama to the table, but this game succeeds - and is a worthy swan song for the seventh generation of video game consoles.

In a nutshell, The Last of Us is a story set in a world that is twenty years into an apocalypse brought about by the mutation of the cordyceps fungi (rendering it capable of infecting human hosts). Joel, a smuggler harboring a painful past due to the brutal loss of his daughter during the outbreak's early days, finds himself tasked to deliver the most unusual cargo in the form of the fourteen year-old Ellie - a young girl who appears to be immune to the virus and may hold the key to a long sought after vaccine.

Together they must travel westward from Boston to Colorado and eventually Utah, where a group calling themselves the Fireflies hopes to manufacture the cure. Along the way they are beset not only by the elements but also by the infected and Hunters - people who chose to stay outside the relatively safe (but harshly governed) quarantine zones and instead live on the outside despite the danger.

It's important to note that the game rarely pits Joel and Ellie against hordes of infected and bandits. On the contrary, a lot of the more memorable scenes feature the lonely desolation of their surroundings and nature's eventual reclamation of a world no longer ruled by humanity.

The Last of Us, like a lot of media which feature the breakdown of society due to some outbreak (zombies or otherwise), has tabula rasa as an over-arcing theme. It's a sad pondering of a different kind of clean slate which raises the question - how would people act when the constraints of society are suddenly removed and they are able to act without consequence?

Even more important than this, however, is the fact that The Last of Us is a bildungsroman of sorts - not just for Ellie but also for the grizzled Joel. Their adventure isn't the conventional coming-of-age story as well, although there is no lack of such, but also of the growth of their relationship - one that starts from being apathetic strangers (where Ellie is just another shipment) and ends with one that I could say is as good as a father-daughter bond. This is highly emphasized in the ending where Joel chose to save Ellie's life over the chance for a cure (and humanity's resurgence).

It's a bittersweet conclusion, but it doesn't lean on the negatives too much. On one hand the Fireflies' cause, noble as it may seem, is effectively ruined with the death of their leader and the escape of the cure. On the other a young girl's life is spared from death, even if it was for a desperate cause, and she is given the chance to live a full life with people who won't abandon her (or die). It's certainly easy to justify Joel's actions, especially since their world has already gone to hell anyway and many of the people left are either spending their lives in relative safety or bandits who have eschewed any semblance of morality, choosing to live savage lives amongst the infected.

Overall, The Last of Us is more than a game. It is a strong example of the long-standing (but still unaccepted) notion that video games are as powerful as storytelling mediums as any good book and tries to make a case that they should be seen in a new light - as pieces of art.

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