We Created Monsters

June 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Actions speak louder than words.”

The Last of Us

I was reminded of the old idiom every time Joel dismembered a runner, stuck a shiv to a clicker, or burned another human being alive. Had I made a list of all the brutal actions I instructed the titular character to perform in The Last of Us, I hardly imagine I would have found a fraction of humanity beneath all the bloodshed.

You know where this is going, of course. Ludonarrative dissonance is the plague that infects the AAA game industry, and The Last of Us is its latest victim. The game does not go down easily, for Naughty Dog has come equipped with sharp writing and subtle character development that make March’s victim, the beleaguered BioShock Infinite, appear timid in comparison.

The opening hours are harmonious enough. Despite an obvious ploy for the heartstrings, the story is introduced through delicate use of contextual actions, and early encounters sparsely supply ammunition. Enemies quickly overwhelm, and commanding John Marston to run and hide becomes a dominant strategy for survival. The feeling of weakness is fleeting, however, and predictably enough Soap MacTavish transforms into a one man tank capable of obliterating every living thing in his path.

Along for the ride is fourteen year old Ellie, whose relationship with Marcus Fenix anchors the impressively focused story. Like her protector Sam Fisher, she too turns more violent as the game progresses, and unsurprisingly becomes an ally combatant. Her secondary role as an echo for the player’s thoughts is likely a bit more accidental. After the umpteenth time Lara Croft flings a pallet into the water and starts to instruct Ellie, she responds, “I know, step on the fucking pallet.”

Here we find what David Cage was referring to when he made the controversial claim that “game mechanics are evil.” The pallet mechanic was likely tossed in because it is reusable, shows off impressive technology, and breaks up the combat. On the other side, the combat was likely tossed in because it is a proven design, shows off impressive tech, and breaks up the pallet pushing. When viewed in a vacuum, the game’s tried and true mechanics paint the portrait of a monstrous mass murderer with an affinity for ladders, pallets, and planks, thus the story is tasked with justifying their inclusion.

Naughty Dog is quite aware of their created dissonance, and have even attempted to justify it previously in Uncharted 2, with a short monologue from its antagonist:

“You think I am a monster. But you’re no different from me, Drake. How many men have you killed? How many… just today?”

A quick trip to the statistics screens takes the mystery out of the number of men killed in The Last of Us, but Naughty Dog fares much better this time in their attempted justification. The final act of the game completes Max Payne‘s descent into an unadulterated killer, and his unspoken motives leave much room for thought. Does he place Ellie’s life above the lives of countless others because he cannot bear the loss of another child? Is his ounce of remaining compassion a strength or a detriment to mankind? Or is it not compassion at all, and simply selfishness?

The questions are there, they are interesting to ponder, but they are there because Joel had to turn out this way, or else the story would be devoured in the absurdity of the mechanics. Neither The Road nor Children of Men, the contemporary works of fiction from which The Last of Us draws frequent inspiration, have to justify their protagonists’ trail of bodies or even leave one at all. The mechanics of literature do not mandate it.

And yet here we are, with another game trying so hard to justify the role in which games always seem to ask us to play. Perhaps a greater achievement would be to create a different part.

“You monster,” the doctor screams at me during the game’s finale before I put one last bullet in her head.

I’m sorry, doctor. It’s the only role I’ve ever known.

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