An out-of-control pandemic has broken down social order. What’s left of humanity lives in isolated cities controlled by the military. You and your partner are smugglers based in Boston, bringing illicit drugs, weapons and supplies into the quarantine zone. A local resistance group, decimated by the military, asks you to smuggle something valuable out of the city. Well, not something. Someone.
I haven’t owned a console or a computer that could reliably play modern games since Nintendo 64 (think Mario Kart).
I have an addictive personality. Combined with anxiety, a game is too alluring an escape. Like some of the adventure books I sunk into as a kid, it’s tempting to lose oneself in a world that feels more accessible than the real one.
My personal compromise is this. With just a few exceptions, I don’t buy games. I do watch playthroughs on Youtube and Twitch for games that are grounded in fantastic storytelling. So I experience the game like a film, albeit with a narrator guiding me through it. Which is great because unlike a film or an audiobook, you get to choose the narrator — pick the youtube personality that you like.
A few years ago, watching one of these playthroughs, I fell in love with a game called the Last of Us. Like the best television in the age of peak tv, the dialogue is natural, the plot is character-driven, the stakes are believable, the characters are relatable and you come to care deeply for them. The emotional core of the story — the love and complex relationship between a father and daughter — is universal. And the environment evokes the story in the way fantastic cinematography does: a post-pandemic world, losing its moral compass, returning to a vibrant, green and dangerous jungle.
And, ugh, the music. It brings you in deeper, tingling your spine. And the payoff, the climax of the story is both heartbreaking and emotionally true. In short, it is a masterpiece of storytelling. Modern art. And it was acknowledged as such, winning the Best Picture equivalent of gaming awards. (It’s now an HBO show — below)
A few years ago the sequel was released. (To avoid spoilers, especially with the HBO series renewed for a second season, I’ll skip the details.)
But in short it almost felt like an intentional “fuck you”.
Part of that was to a segment of the gamer culture — it had queer characters, non-sexualized female leads, a tough but likeable Jewish love interest, fantastic gameplay and storytelling, but also a morality play that condemns the violence you yourself are committing.
If the first story was about love, the developer explicitly designed this story to be about hate. And hate it received in turn, bubbling up from the land of internet toxicity, sparking a debate about art, violence, and our cultural tolerance toward LGTBQ people. And I don’t have much to say about people who oppose it for those reasons. (If you can’t accept a work of modern art representing gay characters in leading roles, we just don’t have much to talk about.)
But the truth is I understood some of the hate the game received. I also struggled with it. For different reasons. Put simply, it’s hard to watch characters you care about make choices that you know will hurt them. Or, even more difficult, choices that hurt others. I ended up taking a break for almost a year before returning to finish the “let’s play” walkthrough.
And I’m not even sure how I feel now. It was both harsh and beautiful. I can’t wait for HBO to adapt it. I honestly can’t say more without spoiling it.
Too often in media we don’t let characters face the consequences of their actions. Because, well, it can be sad. We create a deux ex machina that allows a character to remain morally pure while defeating the enemy. Maybe because the enemy has ironically managed to kill themselves with their own evil weapon, or maybe the enemy is simply an evil caricature. TV is at its heart escapist after all.
But the real world almost always involves trade-offs. We just like to pretend it doesn’t, like our decisions IRL are as neat as the characters we see on TV. So we don’t think about how green technologies involve mining more minerals in war-torn countries, or how “buy america” regulations impoverish other parts of the world, or how free trade simultaneously lowered the cost of thousands of goods while offshoring American jobs, or how fighting a war, even a just war, will inevitably lead to thousands more deaths. Or the biggest personal trade-off that we all have to deal with, time. We can make moral choices, but we don’t like to acknowledge the cost.
It’s so much easier to just pick your side and close your eyes.
To simply exist, we all have to do this to some extent. You can’t live in this life without making choices, or without some doublethink (I am not vegetarian, and I’m not entirely unaware of how industrial meat and dairy products are made).
But, like everything else, there’s a spectrum. And hate, in a way, is this idea taken to its extreme. It provides the ultimate purpose, all of the answers, without the messiness.
Beyond forcing some to confront their own homophobia, I think that’s another reason The Last of Us series can be challenging. It invites us to make a choice, to hate or to love as their characters do, but then forces us to acknowledge the cost.