The Last of Us is a true work of art
A few semesters ago, I took a Rhetoric of Technology course in college where I was tasked to write a paper arguing for or against an aspect of technology. For my paper, I chose to argue in favor of video games being considered as forms of art.
There were many critics against this idea, most notably film critic Roger Ebert and filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who stated for various reasons how video games could not ever be considered as art. Roger Ebert's main issue with classifying video games as art is that video games have objectives, if the main purpose behind something is to win, then it cannot be considered art. Steven Spielberg cites the inclusion of interactivity as another issue. When we take up a controller, we distance ourselves emotionally from the game as our level of interactivity somehow skews our connection with the story.
Now, I am not going to argue the issue of video games, as a whole, as art. However, I'm mentioning Ebert and Spielberg's comments because they resonated with me when I played through Naughty Dog's The Last of Us. Not only do I believe The Last of Us is art, but it is one of the greatest games ever made.
Something new, something great
From Naughty Dog, the studio that brought us some of the greatest icons in gaming, came a title that didn't quite reflect their previous outings. The Last of Us surprised gamers when first announced with a trailer depicting a terrifying post-apocalyptic world with two characters struggling to survive its savagery.
Needless to say, this game was definitely going to be different than the studio's usual light-hearted titles. To say the least, we were all intrigued by Naughty Dog's more mature and brutal offering. The Last of Us appeared on numerous most anticipated games lists for 2013 with most all expecting it to be a strong contender for 2013's Game of the Year.
When The Last of Us was released June 14, 2013, it certainly did not disappoint.
An emotional gut punch from the start
[Warning! Spoilers ahead!]
Nothing of recent memory quite resonated with me like The Last of Us. The story is simple, yet filled with themes exploring the human condition. The Last of Us accomplishes this successfully through its amazing use of characterization enhanced by the excellent performances of Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie).
At the start of the narrative, the player is given a brief glimpse at the ordinary life of our protagonist, Joel, and his daughter Sarah. The casual father/daughter banter between the both of them is natural, allowing for an immediate connection from the beginning. Soon, however, both Joel and Sarah's lives are thrown into chaos when violent attacks begin to occur in their small Texas town. Joel and Sarah, along with Joel's brother, attempt to escape the chaos, only to be thrust directly into it.
After experiencing a series of close-calls, Joel carries his wounded daughter towards presumed safety. Instead, the brutality of the new world comes crashing down as a soldier fires at Joel and Sarah. Despite his attempts to protect his daughter, Sarah is killed. The introduction concludes with Joel, now broken, weeping over the body of his daughter.
Does interaction affect the emotional delivery?
Right from the beginning, The Last of Us hits you with an incredibly powerful emotional punch to the gut. Instead of seeing the scene play out on film, we control both Sarah and Joel throughout the whole ordeal. Interaction is a concept video games are built on, its something that keeps them from achieving classification as art according to some critics, but interaction is what makes The Last of Us so powerful.
By controlling Sarah, we personally witness her ordinary world transform into a nightmare. As the player navigates her through her home, we are with Sarah, discovering the inevitable chaos that lies just beyond her doorstep. It's an aspect that cannot be achieved through films or television. Although some games feature player choice which can influence the direction of the story, The Last of Us remains on a set path. Much like viewing a film, we do not have control over what happens next.
As previously mentioned, Ebert makes a point of citing progression, moving towards an objective, as a reason why games cannot be art. The rules and objectives of a game are the main focus, not allowing for the story to progress naturally as in a film or novel. To quote Ebert:
"[Kellee] Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say that it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them."
To a point, I can understand Ebert's belief on this subject. For the most part, games are typically all about getting through a level, defeating a boss, or fulfilling quest objectives. The emphasis is not placed on delivering a narrative, but rather more on accomplishing tasks.
However, The Last of Us was truly an experience. Although it is a game with objectives, the focus was on delivering a powerful narrative complete with brilliant writing and amazing characters. The interaction, such as in the opening, only added to the experience by allowing the player to achieve that powerful experience. As stated by critic, Dan Gayle:
"[The Last of Us] is less a "game" than an emotional experience and will challenge everything you know about the medium."
The Great Abyss of Empathy?
There are endless moments throughout The Last of Us where we, as the player, connect emotionally with Joel and Ellie. For instance, the small scene where Joel and Ellie find the giraffes. Ellie looks on in amazement as we connect with her, pondering our own feelings on what it would be like to see certain things for the first time.
The interaction between Joel and Ellie is incredibly human, as we see their connection build throughout the course of the game. I connected more to the characters in The Last of Us way more than characters from any film or book. Of course the natural, written dialogue and performances help deliver this feeling, but it's also through the personal level of interaction only usually found in a video game.
Steven Spielberg believes interactivity, the core of video games, ruins their ability to tell a story. He describes the "great abyss of empathy" stating:
"I think the key divide between interactive media and the narrative media that we do is the difficulty in opening up an emphatic pathway between the gamer and the character-as differentiated from the audience and the characters in a movie or television show."
Essentially, he believes that gamers throw all emotional connection to the characters out the window in favor of achieving a higher score. In certain games where player choice is prevalent, even though gamers are playing a hero, they are given the ability to kill innocents. Whenever this type of interaction occurs, the result is incredibly jarring often immediately removing the player from the experience.
However, The Last of Us does not allow for such deviations as the narrative is set down its own path. The choices in The Last of Us come in the form of gameplay, choosing to go in guns blazing or use stealth, not moralistic, narrative choices. In the care taken to construct the narrative, it is clear Naughty Dog placed heavy emphasis on delivering a powerful story.
So is The Last of Us art?
In regards to video games being classified, as a whole, as works of art, the main issue seems to be with interactivity. Although I do not necessarily agree with their stance, I can understand both Ebert and Spielberg's view on the issue. Interactivity can interfere with aspects of the narrative, such as the player being taken out of the experience through player choice.
The Infamous series is a good example. With Infamous: Second Son, the overall narrative painted Delsin as a hero. However, because you had the ability to make good or bad moralistic choices, Delsin's actions could often be perceived as out of character. When something like this occurs, the player is taken out of the experience and reminded of the "game" aspect.
However, with The Last of Us, the narrative is carefully woven with scenes of realistic, emotional human interaction that are mixed with gameplay elements focused on survival.
Although Ebert believes these objectives restrict video games from becoming art, as it places restrictions on the narrative, does film not have restrictions as well? With films, we are guided through by the director. He or she is showing us what they want us to see. Much in the same way a player moves a character through a level, the director guides the viewer through the story.
Even though video games may not be considered by art by some critics, they are certainly on the path towards achieving this status. Video games have definitely matured in regards to story and characters over the past few years.
However, one thing is for sure, The Last of Us is certainly an experience that will not be forgotten.