Parenthood changes you; everybody says that. Prolly ‘cuz it’s true, and pretty self-evidently so at that. What isn’t always obvious is the ways in which parenting messes with what was probably a perfectly good personality and lifestyle prior to having kids. I was expecting having a kid to cut into my video game time, right? I wasn’t expecting having a kid to change the way I related to playing video games, and that’s kinda fascinating to me.
Maybe not to you; I dunno. Hey: my blog. Shuddup.
You might remember I got myself a PS3 and The Last of Us around Thanksgiving. I’ve owned an Xbox 360 (several, actually) since launch; it took until the launch of the PS3’s successor for a game to come out that finally flipped the switch and made me pull the trigger and mix some metaphors up and buy one.
A warning, the only warning you get: hella spoilers. If there is any chance at all that you’re ever going to play this thing, first, go do it now— it’s easily worth the price of the system all by itself– and second, don’t read this post until you’ve beaten the game. I’ll see you in a month or so, if you’ve got my schedule. Go forth.
A short plot synopsis: The game starts in present day. You’re a single dad with a fourteen-ish-year-old daughter. The zombie apocalypse starts, except these are fungus zombies, which are neater and more frighteningly real than the regular kind.
Within fifteen minutes of the start of the game, your daughter is gunned down in your arms.
It’s… difficult. As scenes go. It really fucking sucks. Badly.
Jump forward twenty years. Joel (“you”) is still alive; society, not so much. For various reasons you get tasked with escorting a fourteen-year-old girl, Ellie, across the country. Ellie, as it turns out, is immune. Your job is to get her to some sciency folks alive.
And we’re off to the races.
Folks, The Last of Us is probably the best game I’ve played in years; certainly the best game of 2013. There’s no real doubt about that. But what’s most amazing about it is the way it creates this relationship between Joel and Ellie, and pulls you along with it. You’re tasked with protecting her for much of the game, although (thank God, because otherwise a game-long escort mission would have gone badly wrong) she does a good job of staying out of trouble and eventually is able to actually pitch in and fight alongside you. But I really don’t think you can properly put yourself inside Joel’s head unless you’re a parent– and lemme tell you something, if you’ve got kids The Last of Us is gonna fuck you up.
There’s a point fairly late in the game where Joel abruptly gets quite badly injured. The game throws a curveball at you by making you take over as Ellie for a while, trying to pull together enough food and medicine to get Joel through a Colorado winter alive. There is, of course, one major zombie attack during this sequence, and to me at least it was one of the hardest points in the game– not just because it was, legitimately, a difficult gaming challenge to get through successfully, but because watching Ellie, this little kid who has been depending on you for, by this time, ten to twelve hours of gaming or so, get repeatedly killed was fucking gut-wrenching. I had to turn the game off, not out of a frustration ragequit (although that was part of it, I’ll admit) but because I literally couldn’t watch Ellie get killed again.
(What did I do then? Like an idiot, I tried to start the first chapter of the new Walking Dead game– which provided me with a refreshing tonal shift by making me play as 10-year-old Clementine from the first series. That didn’t work very well either; I still haven’t finished the first section, for much the same reasons. Plus there’s a thing with a dog and goddammit enough emotional bullshit from games tonight thank you.)
Anyway. As I said, the main plot point driving the entire game is that Ellie was bitten by one of these things (off-camera, before you ever meet her) and she never succumbed. She’s immune, and you’re trying to get her to this organization that Joel thinks can help to figure out why she’s so special and possibly find a cure for the Cordyceps fungus. And then you get there. And you’re separated from Ellie for a while. And then you discover that the doctors do think that they can figure out what’s wrong with her– but that the fungus has invaded her brain structure and that it’s going to require risky brain surgery to be able to do anything about it.
It’s worth pointing out that at no point do they say “the surgery is going to kill her.” They say “we have to do brain surgery” and Joel puts everything else together from there.
And Joel. Goes. Nuts. Previously in the game you’ve either been fighting bandits (generally poorly armed and rarely protected by anything) or zombies (dangerous as hell, but generally lacking distance weapons.) The last sequence throws you up against dozens of trained commandos with fucking body armor and machine guns. Now, it’s become painfully apparent by this point in the game that Joel is a bit of a monster– the game isn’t really interested in letting you forget the fact that you’re killing people for part of it, even if those people can be broadly classed as Bad People a fair amount of the time. It’s visceral. It gets to you, after a while– and this was clearly a deliberate design decision on the part of the designers. Joel gets more and more frantic about reaching Ellie before anything can happen to her– and, fascinatingly, so did I– I’m generally a hoarder in games like this, keeping everything in reserve In Case I Need It. By the time you get to the last bit of the game where you know there’s not much more than a hallway between you and Ellie, I was playing with no quarter given for anyone— you’re behind a corner? I’m not waiting for you to come out. Molotov cocktail. I shot at you once and missed? Throwing a bomb. Four of you back there? Smoke grenade, followed by a Molotov, then breaking the neck of the guy who I missed. Brutal shit.
And then you burst into the surgical suite. Ellie’s on the table, unconscious. There are three doctors in the room, unarmed. They see the crazy man with the flamethrower (yup) and the machine gun burst into the room… and they cower.
I was expecting, at this point, to be presented with some sort of choice. No. Why not? Because the game has gone to great pains to set up Joel’s character by this point, and isn’t terribly concerned with what you want to happen. And there is no way in sweet shrieking Hell that Joel is letting anyone stick a knife in Ellie’s brain. None. Period.
Your only option is to gun down the (unarmed, hiding) doctors and pick up Ellie and run– which brings you right back to the beginning of the game, where you’ve got a defenseless kid in your arms, and because you’re carrying her you can’t get to your guns and shoot back, and your only option is to run like hell or you’re both going to die. Because as it turns out the guards do not suddenly get less pissed at you once you’ve killed the doctors and taken Ellie back.
And you know how the game handled this the first time it happened, too. She died. And Joel didn’t.
And just to make sure this is clear: I had an Atari, people. I’ve been a gamer for a very long time; I’m part of the first generation of people who can say honestly that they’ve been gamers for their entire lives. And I have never once played a game where the main character was given the chance to save the world and chose not to. Because if the choices are save the world, or save your kid? Fuck the world.
Like I said: if you’re a parent, this shit’s gonna fuck with your head. Because, as contrived as it sounds, that’s not a choice that I could make and expect to keep my sanity.
Amazing, amazing stuff; everyone involved with the game should be proud of themselves. And you should have played it by now. Go forth and game.