Push to Smart’s latest episode is up! To kick off our discussion of The Last of Us, we look at how horror games adapt generic images and themes from films to create meaning.
A transcript of the video is included below the cut.
This episode contains spoilers for The Last of Us, and every zombie movie ever made
You are watching Push to Smart. In this episode, we will be discussing Naughty Dog’s 2013 PS3 exclusive, The Last of Us. Naughty Dog cut its teeth on the Uncharted series earlier in the console generation, refining a style that relies heavily on cinematic cues to create meaning. In Uncharted, this took the form of knowing pastiche and frequent winks at the player. The Last of Us relies less on cheeky pastiche, but borrows many generic images and conventions seen in films like Children of Men and Dawn of the Dead.
The Last of Us vision of the apocalypse hinges on the nightmare scenario in which the very real cordyceps fungus makes the leap from insect to human host. It then gives the infection a good 20 years to fester before unveiling a beautiful, broken world to explore. We travel across the country as Joel, a gruff survivalist, and his young charge Ellie. Like in Children of Men, Ellie is the last hope for a decimated humanity, and it’s up to Joel to protect her at all costs–even if he is at first reluctant to do so.
The Last of Us borrows many production techniques from film to attain this cinematic approach, from blocking out and staging scenes with real actors wearing motion capture suits to hiring a film composer to create the soundtrack for the game. The result is a game with lively performances that uses recognizable cues to spur forth narrative action and emotional connection. We see this as soon as the game begins. The prologue plays like a scene straight out of an outbreak film using isolation and confusion to build tension, ultimately culminating in the death of Joel’s daughter, Sarah. This chapter very quickly sets the stage for the tone and brutality of the game, and it also is the first of many scenes which heavily utilize film techniques to elicit a strong emotional response to the player.
There’s a lot to be said about The Last of Us’s pedigree–a lot has been said about The Last of Us’s pedigree by its own directors. Both creative director Neil Druckmann and game director Bruce Straley have used interviews to aggressively align their game with ultra-violent genre pieces like the aforementioned Children of Men, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit, and it doesn’t take long to track the game’s genealogy to classic zombie films. Publishers’ and developers’ desires to link their games to a medium with more cultural prestige is nothing new; in fact, while it might have taken gaming awhile to have its first great Western like True Grit, horror games have long been making the claim to cinematic aspirations and cultural clout–despite the fact that horror movies are usually dismissed as products low culture.
However, if we were to take a step back and look at these genre films–specifically horror films–and discourse surrounding them, it might be easier to understand why horror games like The Last of Us can make that claim. Upon doing so, it might be surprising to find that the reverse also occurs: the action in and assumed audience relationship to genre films have been compared to games since at least the 70s.
John G. Cawelti first drew a comparison between the viewer of a Western and the spectator of a baseball game in his study, The Six-Gun Mystique. His argument was that, just as spectators of a baseball game rooted for their home team, viewers of a western rooted for theirs–the lone sheriff, the good guys. While missing the direct input fundamental to enjoying a videogame, it touched on a key part of both: the idea of investment in one side “winning” over another–that one could possibly fail. A decade later, Vera Dika adapted this analogy to the slasher film for a more interactive approach, acknowledging that the viewers of a film are more like players of a videogame in that they “play” the film by knowing its rules.
Carol Clover independently drew a similar comparison in her own study of slasher films, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, in which audiences and the film play a game in an attempt to outsmart each other–the audience wins by successfully applying genre rules to predict the events, while the film wins when it surprises the audience (which, in the case of the slasher film, usually means successfully grossing the audience out).
If Cawelti first introduces a similar form of investment and assumed failure states shared by genre films and games, the key point Clover and Dika pin down is that both genre films and games are linked at their most basic level by their reliance on rule sets to create meaning. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly for a discussion of the Last of Us, they both also assume a mutual understanding between film and audience. This is part of the reason we see so many “horror” games. When audiences are already literate in a genre’s rules, its easy to apply them to the game’s rules to immediately imbue player action with meaning. It’s one thing to have a player fire a series of pixels at a target, but it’s another to tell them that target is a zombie. Thanks to genre films, the zombie comes pre-loaded with its own bundle of signifiers–even if that zombie has a fresh coat of paint (or fungus) via The Last of Us’s infected.
In the end The Last of Us relies on a lot of genre rules, generic images, and identifiable tropes to invest play with narrative and dramatic stakes. Let’s look at its prologue sequence as an example.
Out of control emergency vehicles – CLIP of Sarah seeing ambulances rush by the window juxtaposed with the ambulence hitting a bystander in Dawn of the Dead.
Neighbors gone bad – CLIP of Joel and Sarah’s neighbor bursting through the glass door juxtaposed with the zombie neighbor in Dawn of the Dead
World building via news programs – CLIP of Sarah watching the news in The Last of Us juxtaposed with clip of news report in Dawn of the Dead
World building via oral narratives – CLIP of Tommy describing an ill-fated family he heard about juxtaposed with a clip of Ben describing a horrifying encounter at a diner in Night of the Living Dead
These images work together to clue the player in on the rest of the game’s thematic and dramatic expectations through assumed genre literacy.
One theme established as early as Night of the Living Dead is the idea that zombies can bring out the worst in people–and that some men are more dangerous than the monsters lurking outside. Romero initiated it in his seminal film’s final frames in which his black protagonist is shot and killed by a militia after surviving the night in a house full of zombies. The still photos of the zombie lynch mob and their prize that flashed through the credits served as an unnerving reminder of the photos found on the front pages of actual newspapers of the time. Since then, the idea of men as the true monsters has lived on and evolved to reflect our current fears and shock.
At first, The Last of Us appears to flip this trope at the player/audience when Ellie encounters David. David knows of Ellie and Joel since they’ve become legendary survivors with a ruthless reputation. Suddenly, the player’s actions necessary to get through the game–having to take down hundreds of men and zombies–are recontextualized to be horrifying. We briefly see how our violence might not be justified in the greater world of The Last of Us.
In the end, however, we find that David’s transgressions outweigh Joel’s as they teeter on the zombie-appropriate boundaries of cannibalism. Where The Last of Us initially threatened to push the boundaries of genre conventions–to win against the audience in Clover’s game–it ultimately regresses back to familiar lines with David and his band of cannibals. Additionally, while treading these well-worn grounds, the segments of gameplay that include David ultimately undermine the stakes established by the tropes and generic images.
Jay: The Last of Us goes out of its way to make the gameplay and story meld seamlessly into a cinematic playing experience, but there are certain times when the illusion is broken when the game relies too heavily, or too transparently, on common videogame structures. There are several instances when the carefully built narrative tension is halted by overly game-y events . Ellie’s defense of the shack with David is one of the stronger instance where the game drops all pretense of cinematic narrative progression for an enemy rush mode that culminates in, of course, a boss-like bloater you are forced to kill before you can progress. But this ultimately doesn’t compare to the worst offender of the game: the boss battle with David. In many foundational video games such as Zelda, boss battles take on a three part structure in which players must use a specific skill they have recently learned to successfully best their enemy.When you land your first stealth hit against David it becomes obvious that you’ll need to land a very particular amount of attacks as he becomes more crazed and powerful. And while this setup works in most action-adventure games, The Last of Us intentionally tries to steer itself away from anything as gimmick heavy and traditional as boss battles, which makes the encounter such a jarring experience. The familiar structure of the boss fight stimulates a kind of muscle memory in seasoned players, making it easy to fall back on familiar ludic stakes without any regard for the carefully constructed narrative stakes.
In this way we see some of The Last of Us’ narrative failings as it can’t decide whether to hold onto the cinematic pedigree it strives for or fall back on tried and true gameplay mechanics. While it tries to both distinguish itself as a more artistic effort and also deliver on the triple A gameplay mechanics buyers expect from their top tier titles, the game winds up stuck in between the two. The acclaim for the last of us rest heavily on the portrayals of Ellie and Joel as well as the narrative’s climax, which offers a twist that completely recontextualizes the characters’ and players actions leading up to the end of the game.
So join us next time where we discuss the aforementioned narrative twists and take a closer look at the characters in The Last of Us.
Written and Edited by Jaylee and Stacey
Music by DJ MapReduce
Footage from The Last of Us, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Children of Men, Dawn of the Dead (2004), No Country for Old Men, True Grit (2010), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Beyond: Two Souls, Halloween (1978), Red Dead Redemption, Resident Evil (game), Silent Hill (game), Shaun of the Dead, Resident Evil (film), Zombieland (film), Death Rides a Horse, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream, Silent Hill 2, Resident Evil: Revelations, Astroids, 28 Days Later