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Inside a desolate, decaying building with an interior of different shades of grey, a man and young kid scavenge for supplies. Silhouettes of several figures quickly flash past an open window. "Come on! Go!" says the man, and he grabs the child. They hide behind the wall of an adjacent room.
And then enter the mutants. Really? Ugh. OK…. They have deformed heads, and they behave instinctually. They snap their teeth. They flail their arms. They emit high-pitched squeals. They rabidly consume a dead man on the floor.
The man behind the wall stupidly cocks his handgun, which creates a distinct clicking sound that draws the attention of these cannibals. He winces. He turns at just the right moment to grab a mutant by the throat. It snaps its teeth and lurches a Hollywood-esque scream toward the man’s face. The girl stabs it in the back. He fires his weapon. They run.
This is how Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us teases would-be players in a trailer unveiled at this year’s Video Game Awards. And I can only shake my head. The reveal hints that this newest work may become mired in game tropes. Why must games always dehumanize adversaries? I’m a little sick of one-dimensional foes. Why are our protagonists so unreasonably cocksure of themselves? Why does violence as a solution hold such a prominent place in the medium?
For a brief moment, I could have been describing Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a brilliant book that follows the travels of a man and his son as they look for food, shelter, and escape from the approaching winter in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Maybe it’s unfair to compare these works, but I feel that The Last of Us trailer invited this association due to the eerie similarities it shares with a portion of John Hillcoat’s film adaption of The Road. (I chose this over McCarthy’s written word simply because the same scene in the novel plays out a little differently and, as a result, isn’t quite as analogous.)
(I might also preface this with the observation that the industry exists in a perpetual preview cycle and that expecting a trailer to be representative of some aspects of the final game is not beyond reason.)
In the scene, the man and his son approach an old farmhouse. The boy pleads with his father not to go, but the man insists. They need food. They will die hungry otherwise. They have to take the risk.
He readies his pistol that only has one bullet and enters the creaking structure. Inside, they look for anything to eat. The man sees a locked trap door. He convinces the child that they should take a look. Someone secured this for a reason, he deducts. They have to see what’s inside.
The cellar is pitch black. The man strikes his lighter and slowly moves the flame through the darkness. Starving men, women, and children peer back from the shadows. They are naked and filthy with dried blood. "Help us," they plead. They are missing body parts. Someone is keeping them alive in order to slowly eat them piece by piece.
As the man realizes what he’s stumbled upon, he tells the boy that they have to leave. He runs out of the basement quickly and pulls his son along, shutting the trap door underneath them. At the same time, they see people approaching the farmhouse. With nowhere else to turn, they head upstairs and into a bathroom filled with blood and discarded flesh.
This is where The Road and The Last of Us depart dramatically.
As the people enter the house, the man first tries to convince his son to take the pistol. The boy refuses and becomes increasingly upset. "What are you doing?" says the child. "I’m sorry," says the father, who then raises the gun…and presses the barrel against his son’s forehead.
Just as he’s about to squeeze the trigger, noise from those held in the cellar trying to force their way out distracts the cannibals. This allows the man and the kid to quickly escape down the stairs and out a window. They hide in a ravine and wait for cover of night.
This is a man with everything to lose and nothing to gain.
In The Road, violence is merely an end…and not necessarily a desirable one, only one that’s less adverse than being eaten alive. In an earlier scene, the father initially tries to negotiate with another man who’s spotted the duo. He hesitates to shoot when this man takes the boy at knife point. Firing the weapon not only would deplete the chamber to a single bullet but attract the attention of the other cannibals in the area. He could miss, too, and kill his son.
Such force is a last resort, not the go-to answer. It is a decision with gravity, and the father doesn’t have supreme confidence in his abilities. The scenario is a profoundly human one.
But from what I can see of The Last of Us, violence is a solution that is liberating; before the scene I’ve already described, Naughty Dog first shows us the girl running to the man while he beats another man to death. Then he tells her to search the body…after she cracks a joke about her well-being. The situation isn’t quite so grave. Is this really a coping mechanism for an unforgiving world, or does she just appear a little too cool and collected given the circumstances?
Violence brings results; this is well-tread territory in video games. We shoot and maim our way to victory; hell, we even name our genres after aggressive acts: the first-person shooter, the hack-n-slash, the beat-em-up, the fighter…and so on. Such brutality is the focal point of many titles; it is the primary way through which players interact with these virtual worlds.
The Last of Us seems ready to carry on this tradition. In the trailer, the man readies his weapon to blast his way to freedom. The girl unflinchingly stabs a hostile creature. As they run, the man fires blindly in the opposite direction. He will kill them dead because that’s what video-game protagonists do.
This is a man who shoots first and asks questions later.
Naughty Dog has also conveniently dehumanized his enemy, another trope that the medium falls back on all too frequently. According to Joystiq, the developer’s concocted some contrived nonsense about a fungal infection that ravages the planet over the brink of collapse. Like with the zombie, we don’t — in fact, we can’t — express empathy for these cannibals. Naughty Dog has stripped them of their humanity, so we don’t feel the guilt of mercilessly blowing their heads wide open. They are effectively "other."
The man and his son in The Road, though, contend with actual persons…driven to barbarism, savagery, and depravity by circumstance, sure. They’re the "bad guys," yes. But they think rationally. The share the same goal as our protagonists: to survive. So when the boy repeatedly confirms with his father that they don’t eat people because they’re the "good guys" and because they’re "carrying the fire," the contrast holds real meaning. Our central characters and the cannibals are opposite sides of the same coin.
Developers consistently shy away from such humanization of foes. Our obstacles in games are endless and faceless. They have no motivation or purpose or ability to reason. This is all too pedestrian, and to see another new idea — one that affords Naughty Dog a chance to approach narrative differently — fall in lockstep with gaming conventions is to witness a missed opportunity.
The Last of Us, unfortunately, seems to be on track to continue with tropes that have been holding video games back for years now. The emphasis on violence and dehumanization will hardly elevate this title above or beyond its peers; in fact, these elements can only serve to deny the rest of us of any progress in storytelling for the medium as a whole.