The thug grabs my character by the neck and tosses me to the floor. I try to stand but he’s got me by the hair and smashes my head through a window. Briefly I see the outside world, deserted buildings and cars covered in vines and brush, the sunlight streaming into the alley. Then I’m yanked back in doors and my head is shoved towards a glass shard jutting from the window frame. I let out a yell and, in a moment of desperation, plant my hands on the wall and kick backwards, throwing my foe into a shelf and creating just enough space to get behind him. Without hesitating, I grab his back and slam his neck onto the glass. He crumbles to the ground and begins choking on his blood as I pull out my shotgun and wait for all comers. Several minutes later, I survey the carcasses I’ve left strewn throughout the storefront, wipe the sweat off my brow, and move on to the next encounter.
This is a sequence from the recent video game The Last of Us. The game is beautiful, compelling, well-acted through motion capture, highly touted, and insanely violent. We’ve come a long way from Pac-Man.
But this escalation of violence and its repetitive usage is slightly more complex than one might imagine. In his lecture series, “Of Sorcerers and Men: Tolkien and the Roots of Modern Fantasy Literature,” Wheaton professor Michael Drout notes that all good fantasy requires a horde of villains that can be killed without bringing morality into the picture. The Lord of the Rings needs orcs and Star Wars needs Stormtroopers. As a youngster, one day it struck me that these Stormtroopers were actually dying. What if they were fathers? Or husbands? Was I allowed to enjoy this? I tried to watch Star Wars again with this in mind and simply couldn’t do it. I subconsciously came to understand that the Stormtroopers are only meant for one thing: to provide an expendable, faceless, and bloodless challenge to our heroes.
In the early 90s, when home consoles (Nintendo, Sega Genesis) were beginning to truly take off, videogame developers faced a similar problem. Partially due to the technical limitations of their systems, most all videogames existed in some sort of fantasy setting. Our protagonists were Italian plumbers, blue hedgehogs, and a mouse with jetpack armor. And all of them required a massive quantity of interesting villains who could be easily dispatched without questioning the morality of such actions. These enemies would allowed players to enjoy the fun of the gameplay mechanic (jumping, punching, running fast) without asking difficult questions. What was happening to those Koopa Troopas? Was Mario killing them or knocking them unconscious? I’m not sure. But in the world of the game, it doesn’t matter. Koopa Troopas existed to allow us to run and jump with Mario without asking those kinds of questions.
As the newest entertainment medium, videogames have stepped into the demeaned role that, for years, was held solely by comics. Both began with basic artistry designed for children, both have received negative publicity and government attention over societal impact, and both have striven to validate themselves through more adult storytelling while being restrained by their initial genres. Comics have been trapped trying to make superheroes literary while videogames have refused to let go of the need for levels full of Koopa Troopas.
And so we find our problem. In terms of adult and meaningful story, games have arrived. The recent release Bioshock Infinite has an ending worthy of great cinema and encourages serious study of its plot points. Interactions in The Last of Us are so touching and well done that I might as well be reading a novel by Michael Chabon or Cormac McCarthy. But the games spend most of their time asking us to jump, punch, and shoot through “levels” of bad guys. The resulting dissonance leaves these games handicapped.
For half of the game, the audience observes a serious narrative with all the strokes of a major film release. It contains great acting, moral questions, fear, and sweetness. But for the other half (which just happens to be the playable part), we spend our time killing hundreds, literally hundreds, of enemies as if they were robot birds from Sonic the Hedgehog. But, since this is a serious narrative, these enemies are humans and the encounters are meant to be “realistic”. People are lit on fire and die screaming, beg for mercy, and have their heads beat in with bricks. Some games have tried to deal with this question of morality by discussing the pains of killing and death. But once you dispatch the 50th foe, that conversation loses its meaning (I’m looking at you, Tomb Raider). And no matter what the script says the story is about, if the gamer spends all his time blasting baddies apart with shotguns, the violence becomes the primary message.
Games are now trapped somewhere in between film and Super Mario Bros. They want the brilliance of good film narrative but still cling to the original gaming mechanics that got us this far. Something has to give. At this point, the only consistent videogames left are the ones that got us started. Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Rayman aren’t trying to tell emotionally powerful stories or ask ethical questions. They’re just having fun and avoiding angry toads.
There is a place for complex narrative in gaming. There is even a place for violence. But we have to understand that the means of moving the story forward is interactivity. In the words of Brenda Romero, “the mechanic is the message.” The lectures that games like The Last of Us utilize to drive their narrative may be deep and interesting, but I’m merely learning what is on the test. And if I’m just trying to get through the tests as quickly as I can in order to move on to the next lecture, then there is an inherent structural problem. The Last of Us features an incredible, moving story. I was almost brought to tears on several occasions. But as long as we hand out 10/10s to games featuring serious narrative interrupted by long sequences of Duck Hunt instead of propelled by gameplay that fits the themes of the game, we’re trapped getting the worst of both worlds. Cut the body count of The Last of Us in half (at least), ask me to perform some survivalist functions (more hunting, finding a place to sleep, etc.) and already the game will begin to flow better with the script. The combat will be meaningful and frightening but not overwhelming.
This is a problem that can be overcome. But with The Last of Us, we’ve reached the inevitable conclusion of realistic graphics and ambitious storytelling coming from a legacy started by a cartoon plumber. My hope is that we reflect fondly on the good times, write Dead End on this path, and look for another way.