Collectively, we are incapable of being normal about The Last of Us. It’s difficult to think of a game that divides the furthest corners of criticism more. Though Elden Ring and Breath of the Wild have their detractors for the ‘go anywhere’ attitude others praise so regularly, there is always a sense of a shrug to this criticism. An air of ‘well, it’s not for me’. The Last of Us draws conversations and debates loaded with passion, with no quarter given, no concession made. There are no half measures with The Last of Us, and the TV show’s promotional junket has already proved this. Please, as it comes to our screens next week, let’s try to be normal.
The debate around The Last of Us is not simply a case of whether it is great or it sucks. Most video games are discussed in such extremes. The Last of Us goes a step beyond. Those who love it claim it is the technical and narrative apex of gaming, an example of how our medium can Do Good Art, and the benchmark all other games should (nay, must!) strive for. Those who detest it point to this arrogance, to its linear storytelling and simplistic moralism, and to the copious crunch under which it was made. It’s not, in their eyes, a bad game – it is a symbol of everything wrong with modern gaming.
As is often the way, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s correct to say that there are pieces of technical wizardry in The Last of Us (especially Part 2) that are far beyond what others are capable of – but it’s also correct that 2,000 people were required to make it, and that Naughty Dog crunches routinely. It’s true that there are thematic layers and character driven writing in The Last of Us that stands head and shoulders above most video games, even those praised for their narrative. However, it’s also true that the game has a fairly trite interpretation of its dystopia and relies on tropes and action set pieces far more than the sorts of prestige movies it openly longs to be.
The Last of Us is nihilistic and pessimistic, and grandiose in its view of the basic points it makes about the world. But it is also darkly intelligent, satirically cynical, and a major risk taker in such a risk averse medium. Playing as Abby in the sequel, after watching her kill the first game’s hero, is a much bigger swing than triple-A video games usually take, regardless of your thoughts on that decision and its success.
The politics of The Last of Us are curious, as are its Politics. Both the lower- and uppercase debates have fuelled the embarrassing and overblown ways we discuss the game, and continue to humiliate our medium on the world stage. First, the lowercase politics, by which I mean where the game stands in the general social order.
If you’ve ever seen that entirely brainless meme of left wing games and right wing games, you will know some gamers do not look below the surface when it comes to politics. In this broad, shallow sense, The Last of Us might be described as a ‘right wing’ game. Its lead is a gruff straight white man, and while he’s a gruff straight white man with feelings, he often expresses these feelings through unchecked violence, and the game supports the Might Makes Right way of the world. The sequel throws this for a loop. You play as two women, one a lesbian, the other muscle-bound, neither conventionally feminine in their personalities, and while unchecked violence still propels you forward, the narrative ends with the ultimate checking of this violence, and a condemnation of revenge.
It’s a complex spin for those not really paying attention, and many felt like the game had been taken from them. In killing Joel, the game killed its own ‘right wing’ nature, even if it never existed in the first place. Then the capital-P Politics: the sequel features a transgender character (one done fairly well, but ultimately defined by tragedy, written by cis people, and never uttering the word “transgender”) as well as being inspired by the Israel/Palestine conflict. Though creator Neil Druckmann says the conflict is only a loose inspiration based on the misguided hatred he felt as a child, those are two colossally loaded melting pots.
Of course, as Druckmann proves, this inability to simply be normal does not stop with the fans. The creators suffer from the same word vomit. Craig Mazin, the showrunner for the upcoming adaptation, may well be infected with the early stages of the game’s Cordyceps infection. It would certainly explain the bizarre way the man has discussed the game in recent interviews. Mazin claimed that video games used to be about jumping on turtles, then TLOU “changed all that,” as well as declaring it “the greatest story in video games.”
On the first point, he is obviously factually incorrect. What’s strange is Mazin is a known gamer, so he’s well aware that there were in fact quite a few games between Super Mario Bros. and The Last of Us, but it underlines this inability to praise TLOU with any degree of common sense. It cannot simply be a good game, or even an important game. It needs to always be the before and after point that forever elevated the medium beyond childish pursuits and into a serious art form. As for the second point, while it’s clearly subjective it’s also a little childish – no serious director would claim they were adapting “the greatest book of all time”, unless perhaps they were adapting The Bible.
This childishness is at the heart of the recent discussions of The Last of Us. A headline in The New Yorker questioned whether TLOU’s adaptation would break “the video game curse”, and gamers have rushed to tear this criticism down. What struck me as odd was the tone of our reply – deriding the magazine for being stuck in 2013 while consistently listing three extremely recent examples: Cyberpunk Edgerunners, Arcane, and Sonic the Hedgehog. The first is not an adaptation of the game at all, but a continuation of its world based on ideas established by the board game. The second takes fairly lifeless video game characters and constructs an entirely new narrative, essentially making it licensed fan fiction. The third is an okay kids movie that does not adapt any of the games in any meaningful way.
Even B-tier (and still extremely recent) examples like Detective Pikachu, Uncharted, and Werewolves Within loosely adapt the ideas and images of the game. There still is not a great video game adaptation that takes the true essence of the video game – its story, characters, and themes – and seeks to recreate them. Our response to being reminded of this seems to be to scream “Video games are like so totally art mom! You just don’t get it!! Sonic the Hedgehog 2 grossed over $400 million!!!”, and this comes back to my core plea – I want us to be normal.
I have gone back and forth on The Last of Us being adapted for TV. I too suffer from an inability to be normal – I am frequently irritated by the way TLOU is discussed, and initially did not want the show to exist. However, in recent months I have come to see the value of it. In thinking of it like a book adaptation, I am curious to see how it translates to television, even if I think the game tries too hard to walk like a TV show and quack like a TV show to begin with.
But It’s highly likely that some friends and family members of mine who do not engage with video games will watch the show, and it may well be the closest they will come to engaging with the main medium of my work. I do not care if it’s good, nor whether they like it. I do not define my self worth by whether other people like video games. But I do want us to be normal. I want those people to be able to talk about the show like any other TV show. No needless hyperbole, no toxic bile, no declarations about art. Just please, for once, be normal.
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