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The Last of Us

“The world’s been hard on us. Hard on him. Joel’s done some terrible things. He tells me that on this journey, you hang onto your morals and die, or you do whatever it takes to survive… I guess I’ll find out.”

The Last of Us, recently released for the Playstation 3, is without question one of the most rewarding videogame experiences of my life. Emotionally tolling and morally challenging, it leaves you exhausted and unsettled, but also exhilarated and satisfied.

In The Last of Us, the world has been ravaged by a global fungal outbreak – based on the horrifyingly real “cordyceps” strain – that has infected the majority of humans and transformed them into deadly and disturbing creatures. Twenty years after the fungus eliminated most of the population, those who managed to survive eke out a living in militarized quarantine zones or try to make their way in the nature-reclaimed ruins of formerly great cities. One group – The Fireflies – offers fleeting hope by supposedly searching for a cure and attempting to rebuild civilization.

Caught in the middle is the principal protagonist, Joel: a hardened survivor and smuggler who, after suffering great loss, seems to have sacrificed any moral pretense in service of a “kill or be killed” philosophy. Anger simmers beneath his every utterance and the game makes it abundantly clear he is capable of extreme acts of violence. Joel is not a hero. And although he is haunted by regret and outrage, at his core he is a good man trying – and failing – to make the best of a bad situation.

Accompanying Joel throughout much of the game is the secondary protagonist, Ellie: an orphaned young girl of great importance for the Fireflies. Ellie was born and raised in a quarantine zone after the fall of civilization and has been toughened by her fair share of suffering. Despite this, she has not lost her youthful sense of adventure or morality and although she is often frightened by the world into which she is thrust, Ellie’s honest resolve drives her to survive.

Through a tragic set of circumstances, Joel and Ellie are unwillingly forced into a tense, sometimes adversarial, partnership that takes them on a year-long journey across the destroyed-yet-beautiful former United States. And like similar creative works (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road principal among them), the two are primarily concerned with living to see the next day, but it’s the relationship that develops between Joel and Ellie that is the focus of the narrative. Though the beating heart of the game is comprised of violent encounters and frantic scrambles for sanctuary, its soul is comprised of the quiet, emotional moments. A glance at a broken watch or a simple high-five carries tremendous emotional weight, unlike anything in any game I’ve played before.

Between the writing, art direction, graphics, motion capture performances, music, and voice acting, The Last of Us not only rivals, but surpasses the quality of some of my favorite films. Joel and Ellie are down-to-earth and realistic, and before long I found myself thinking of them as friends. The interactivity of the experience makes it easy to identify with Joel and Ellie’s plight, and although the world they inhabit is an irrevocably transformed version of our own, it and their reactions to it resonate deeply. Their odyssey is wild and strange, but the humanity and pathos the creators manage to convey to the player through Joel and Ellie is astounding.

The game’s thematic impetus is a multifaceted examination of the moral nature of survival. Hard choices and harder sacrifices are made by the characters, and the intrinsic morality of those choices and sacrifices becomes the central challenge of Joel and Ellie’s relationship. The game, by presenting the brutal, unvarnished consequences of Joel’s actions, asks two simple questions of the player: “What would you do to survive?” and “Do you deserve to survive?”

My answers took me down some intense paths of self-examination, and it’s these difficult philosophical conundrums that have led some reviewers to wonder if The Last of Us can be considered a “fun” game. There are unnerving acts of violence the game asks you to engage with. There are serious challenges to the validity of human endurance. And while I admit it is definitely not for everyone and is at times depressing, there are moments of overwhelming beauty and triumphant reward that cement the tough journey with Joel and Ellie as one of the most memorable and enduring in gaming history.

IcelandKlara Harden, Made in Iceland

For the last few weeks, I’ve been struggling to complete a comprehensive response to the Edward Snowden brouhaha (article to appear shortly). But at the start of summer, with warm nights and beautiful weekends calling me away from my keyboard, I can’t quite find it in me to hunker down and ruminate on the ramifications of his revelations and the bleak nature of “truth” in democracy.

So, instead, I thought I would post this gorgeous and inspiring short documentary, Made in Iceland. Its star and editor, Klara Harden, embarked on a multi-week solo journey through the wilderness of Iceland and filmed every moment. I couldn’t be more thankful for her efforts.

The sheer variety of Iceland’s beauty is breathtaking. Harden drinks in the expansive landscape, focusing in turn on the resplendent vistas as well as the more nuanced details. Her close-up inspections of water alternatively rushing and dripping over stone and moss are especially poignant. There’s a mesmerizing rhythm to watching the ground change from stone to grass beneath her striding feet.

Interspersed among the scenes of the environment’s plains and mountains and wind are glimpses into the highs and lows of Harden’s personal experience. Whether it’s the joy of meeting a fox pup or the despair of feeling irrevocably lost in unfamiliar territory, these introspective moments reflect the heart of the adventurer and what it means to experience unspoiled nature. Away from the convoluted trappings of modern civilization, the simple beauty and uncertainty of the wild is intoxicating.

Snowden be damned. I think it’s time to go outside.

Saga

Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples, Saga (purchase from Amazon)

Cyriaque Lamar, io9, “Brian K. Vaughan Talks Saga, One of the Year’s Best Science Fiction Comics

In the world of comics and graphic novels, it’s rare for a property to focus almost entirely on romance, but Brian K. Vaughan’s newest ongoing series, Saga, does exactly that. With help from talented up-and-coming artist Fiona Staples, Vaughan’s Image-published adventure chronicles the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of literally star-crossed lovers Alana and Marko and their newborn daughter Hazel.

In the science fiction/fantasy world of Saga, two alien races have been at war for as long as anyone can remember, with each faction bent on total dominance of the other. From out of the death and destruction, Alana and Marko’s outlawed romance blossoms and as a result, they hit the road in hopes of finding security and peace for their new family.

Along the way they encounter a collection of interesting and bizarre characters and places, the variety and complexity of which all help to elevate the book from cliched sci-fi space opera to an especially impressive creative work. Saga reads like an intergalactic road trip chronicle. And like Vaughan’s previous efforts (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina), his wry sense of humor and appreciation for each character’s personal quirks undercuts all of the intense action and strangeness to drive home the humanity of Alana, Marko and Hazel’s journey.

In complementing his script, Vaughan couldn’t ask for a more effective partner than Fiona Staples, who handles all of the art for the book. Her spare-yet-lively minimalist style manages to flesh out the sci-fi world without bombarding the reader with superfluous detail. Her sense of space makes every page feel open and light, while her character work gives real life to a unique and compelling cast. Staples’ cover work alone is worth purchasing the individual issues; you can view all of them here.

If you’re looking for an excellent graphic novel experience and are a fan of science fiction, I can’t recommend Saga enough. Check it out.

The Private Eye

Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, The Private Eye

Steven Morris, The Beat, “Review: The Private Eye #1”

I also just wanted to mention briefly another comic project on which Vaughan has recently embarked: The Private Eye. Ironically published online, The Private Eye tells the story of a private detective who must navigate the pitfalls of a future Earth in which the structure of the internet has collapsed and all personal data uploaded to cloud storage was made irrevocably public. The revelation of every person’s secret online history has completely transformed society, forcing a mass reversion to physical media (bound books, vinyl records, and print newspapers all make cameo appearances), and more importantly forcing almost everyone to hide behind a disguise to protect his or her identity. The deceptive illusion of anonymity and trust provided by using the internet is shattered.

Since there’s only been one issue released, it’s too early to say how this project will turn out, but the premise is intriguing and unlike the escapist fantasy of Saga, is more in line with Vaughan’s past socially-relevant and critical works. Marcos Martin’s art, appropriate to the comic’s neo-noir stylings, is cool and elegant, and one of the pleasures of the book is taking in all of the resonant elements he incorporates from panel to panel. The fact that everyone is wearing a disguise all the time makes for a very playful visual and narrative theme that has a lot of potential.

If you want to get in on the ground floor of a unique and compelling story that has something to say about the world in which we currently live, I’d recommend giving The Private Eye a shot. You can pay whatever you want to access the first issue online (available in a variety of digital formats) right now.

ALL

Kodaline, All I Want

Everyone feels like a lonely, awkward monster sometimes. The video for Kodaline’s “All I Want” has been around since last year and many have probably already seen it, but I recently revisited it and thought it worth mentioning here for a few reasons. 

For one, the song itself is extremely touching and emotional. Even without the excellent accompanying visuals and storytelling of the video, Kodaline knocks it out of the park with this epic anthem of love and longing. Google recently used it to great effect in their annual “search in review” video to look back at the most searched for and significant stories of 2012.

It’s been refreshing to watch the ascendance of celebratory, uplifting music like this in popular culture. From subdued beginnings, a rousing crescendo brings a wave of emotional gratification. Many artists seem to have studied what bands like Explosions in the Sky had quietly (or not so quietly) been doing for years and started applying it to their own work by embracing a more open sense of hopefulness. 

There’s one other aspect of the video that I love. Beyond the emotional content, the video perfectly captures the dichotomous tensions of modern working life. As I (and countless others) have experienced, working in an office can be overwhelmingly depressing. You are separated from all of the freeing hobbies and pleasures you’d prefer to pursue outside the cubicle walls because, well, you have to eat and that’s the modern world. Thankfully, this video reminds me that despite the many sad hours spent in a place I do not want to be, there is happiness waiting in the comfort of a loved one’s company.

Fox and Cat

2012 has been a busy year. Apart from the inception of this blog, there have been many significant events – in the world and abroad – both excellent and awful. Fortunately, the former far outnumbered the latter in mine and my loved ones’ personal experiences and for that I am extremely grateful.

I generally try to avoid discussing my personal life, but there’s one special new development I’m excited to share here: After seven years together with my significant other, Cassie, I took the opportunity this past Saturday to ask for her hand in marriage. Surrounded by impeccably-dressed friends, beautiful Christmas decorations, and delicious food at our annual holiday dinner, my sentimental, meandering toast quickly – and nervously – transformed into a proposal.

For anyone who is interested (and I record it here for posterity’s sake), I thought I would provide the speech I had prepared and practiced. Guests who witnessed it live will notice I skipped some doom and gloom. Frazzled nerves allow little time for thoughtful reflection and do awful things to your mouth’s coordination. More importantly though, I just couldn’t wait to ask Cassie the big question. She was radiant and surprising her (and everyone else) was just too much fun. So, here it is:

“I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you all here.

It’s been an eventful year, full of new relationships, new friends, new homes, new jobs, new babies, new stages of life, and always new adventures. Unfortunately there have been and always will be difficulties and horrors lurking in the darkness. This year we have seen our fair share of them. But gathering here with you, I am filled with renewed hope and optimism. I hope you are, too.

In preparing this, I was thinking about all of those new events and developments and realized that nothing of great significance had happened in our lives this year, Cassie. Can you think of anything? Nothing? Well, like I said, I am especially happy you’re all here so you can help me change that.

Cassie, over the last seven years, you have been my best friend, my confidant; everything I could ask for in a companion in life. I love you. And today, I was wondering if you would like to be my wife. Will you marry me?”

She said “Yes” immediately! I dropped to one knee and presented a silver ring fashioned in the shape of a fox. I love them – especially arctic foxes, who mate for life – and I wanted Cassie to always have a special token that reminded her of me. She threw her arms around me and needless to say, there was much rejoicing.

When everything was said and done, our guests’ food lay abandoned and cold on the table in service of enthusiastic applause, handshakes, and embraces. “Grief is the price you pay for love,” as they say and we later mourned the frigid feast. But this was a fantastic experience and it went better than I could have hoped. Cassie and I are extremely excited.

Thank you to everyone who was there in person and in spirit, who had a hand in stoking the forge of our relationship, and who helped us celebrate this occasion with love and well wishes. I hope your kindness and friendship is repaid many times over to you in the future. 2013 is shaping up to be another excellent year. We can’t wait to see you there.

Malala Yousafzai vigil.Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf, “An Army of One”

BBC News Magazine, “Malala Yousafzai: Portrait of the Girl Blogger”

The Christian Science Monitor, Adil Jawad and Sebastian Abbot, “The Malala Moment: Tens of Thousands Rally In Pakistan for Girl Shot by Taliban”

Radio Free Europe, Ron Synovitz, “The Pakistani Taliban’s Rationale for Shooting A Schoolgirl”

A 15-year-old girl by the name of Malala Yousafzai was recently shot in the head during an attempted assassination carried out by members of the Taliban in Pakistan. The offense for which she was targeted? Speaking out to western news outlets – specifically the BBC, for which she wrote a blog as an 11-year-old – about the plight of uneducated girls and women who are prohibited from seeking education in regions of the country controlled by the terrorist organization. If it’s any indication of her prominence in the fight for girls’ rights, she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu.

This virulent, horrific, and pathetic action is despicable and reflective of the worst of humanity, but that’s not the reason I wanted to write about it. To focus on the violence itself would do a disservice to Malala’s efforts and the efforts of those who support her and her peers.

The reason I am writing about Malala is because hers is a story worth knowing; a story of the excellence individuals can achieve in spite of daunting ideological and cultural obstacles. To quote her: “All I want is education. And I’m afraid of no one.”

I don’t want to go on about this because the articles listed above do a better job than I could of exploring the various facets and ramifications of her efforts, which even at her young age have had far-reaching, positive effects on the regressive situation imposed on Pakistani women. Thankfully she has been able to receive the best medical care available and it seems she will survive her injuries.

I do want to say that this young girl has stood for something and said “Enough is enough.” Malala and her supporters (her father is also an activist) correctly assert that the only way out of economic and ideological poverty is through education. Her actions are inspiring and refreshing, and I think we could all learn from her heroic example. I recently wrote about Superman and how the character represents a paragon of humanity to which we can all aspire, and from all accounts, Malala’s spirit is reflective of those excellent qualities.

Despite the inevitable dissipation of this event’s ripples, I am ecstatic to be able to count Malala among the living and look forward to her triumphant return to the fight for human decency. There is little doubt that she will go on to achieve great things.

If you would like to take some sort of action in support of Malala, I encourage you to add your voice to those coming from Amnesty International on her behalf, or participate in the UN’s special envoy initiative. I also encourage you to check out an organization I’ve featured beforeThe Girl Effect – which aims to promote awareness of and change the dire, unfortunate circumstances of young women like Malala all over the world.

ThatGameCompany, Journey

Austin Wintory, “Apotheosis”

Journey Stories

I’m sure everyone imagines from time to time what it would be like to embark on a journey into the unknown; to explore an untamed landscape, and uncover hidden truths about one’s self that would otherwise remain undiscovered. For a precious few that is a reality and I envy those lucky individuals, but for most that idea remains an elusive fantasy, one which is at the heart of ThatGameCompany’s recent videogame Journey.

Available exclusively for the PlayStation 3, Journey puts the player in the desert-wandering shoes of a red-cloaked, lone adventurer on a quest to reach a mountaintop many leagues in the distance. Beyond the game’s title and a brief tutorial, the player is supplied with no information they do not discover for themselves. With its breathtaking aesthetics, meaningful story, stirring score, and captivating gameplay, it is clear before long that Journey promises and delivers a uniquely profound experience. For an idea of the artistry of that experience, I strongly recommend the first two links above to watch the game’s trailer and listen to one of the pieces of the soundtrack.

Beyond the literal journey undertaken by the protagonist, the entire presentation acts as a moving storybook allegory for spiritual and emotional transformation. The mountain toward which you are constantly advancing is a practical goal for the game, but as you traverse elaborate ruins and uncover the land’s history, your imagination runs free and the mountain takes on a multitude of significant meanings both inside and outside the game world. The stylish microcosm in Journey celebrates the highs and lows of life and what it means to persist in the face of adversity.

There is beauty and magic to be found in even the destitute ruins of a once great civilization and motivating much of the action of Journey is the conceit that you cannot take wing and fly toward a better understanding of what lies ahead without understanding what has come before. This concept is woven – literally – into the fabric of the game. As you explore, you learn to harness the power of flight, granted to you by mysterious scraps of enchanted scarves, remnants of a history consumed by the desert. This is a great place to mention that despite the harsh environments, every creature, location, and character is imbued with fantastic liveliness, embodying the enigmatic energies they represent. 

One of the greatest philosophical and emotional achievements of the game (and the one that prompted me to write about it now) is its unique implementation of multiplayer elements. Unless you are playing offline, the quest is not one you need undertake alone. At some point along the way, you will undoubtedly encounter another traveler also intent on pilgrimage to the mountain. With regards to your interaction, the game remains minimal. Each of you are given nothing more than a unique symbol and scarf-recharging “shout” to communicate. Adding another layer of symbolism, when two players move close to one another, they restore each other’s energy.

Actions speak louder than words in Journey, and to great effect. Contrary to what you would expect, the limitations foster a more profound connection to the companions you meet. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they’re from. All that matters is that you are on the journey together and that through partnership you can make magic and fly.

As in life, you may lose track of one another, or a different traveler will join you along the way, but there are moments of true beauty to be found in almost every interaction. The last link above, to a blog entitled “Journey Stories,” speaks volumes about the significance of some of these online interactions. As the name implies, it features stories about players’ experiences in the game. Here I will tell you mine. I’ve done my best to avoid any spoilers; there’s nothing below besides the banal revelation that the game has an ending.

My Journey Story:

Though I had already played it once from start-to-finish, I sat down recently to enjoy the game for a second time. After having worked with and parted ways with a few different travelers, about halfway through this play-through, I met one that would stick with me until the end. His scarf – the length of which depends on the discovery of in-game secrets, and determines the amount of time you can fly before needing a recharge – was short, indicating that he was a new player, unfamiliar with the mechanics or progression of the game. For what it’s worth, my scarf was quite long.

We met at one of the most trying sections of the game, one that is made all the more bearable by having a reliable companion. I was resolved to help this traveler evade every obstacle along his way, waiting and leading him across the difficult landscape. Through trials and tribulations, and one of the most emotionally-rewarding scenes I’ve ever watched in a videogame (or otherwise), we made it together to the very end. At this point, the main action of the game has subsided and there is little more to do than complete the journey. It may sound silly to some, but this is where I get choked up.

Eager to complete the game, I rushed forward, arrogantly intent on leading my ward to the ending. To my surprise, however, surrounded by the beautiful environment in this closing segment, my companion suddenly sat down. Steps from the end, he crossed his legs and took a seat, waiting for nothing. Puzzled, I turned around and approached him, wondering what could be wrong. We’d come so far together and I wanted nothing more than to complete the journey side-by-side. My friend continued to sit, seemingly meditating on what we’d done and where we were going.

Still confused, but appreciative of the quiet moment, I sat down beside this stranger. Nothing happened, but somehow… it was one of the most sublime, transcendental experiences, thinking on the time we’d spent. After a few minutes of watching our red-cloaked wanderers – and by extension, ourselves – peacefully reflect, he got up and started walking. I watched him move away for a few seconds, wondering what he would do. He stopped and turned around, waiting for me. I couldn’t help but smile. My character rose and strode toward my companion. Together, we did indeed finish the game, walking side-by-side.

Like I said, it probably sounds pathetic to some, but my heart swells at remembering those moments. I’m incredibly thankful to that companion – who I thought knew less than me – for reminding me to take time to reflect, because great things wait behind as well as ahead. To me, it’s this kind of story that makes games like Journey important. The story, art, music, and presentation are impressive, but it’s the simple celebration of human interaction that truly inspires.