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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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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.