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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.

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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.