Note: This was originally posted on the blog in November of 2013, but got lost in the shuffle with a transfer from one hosting service to another.
This past weekend I consumed two major pieces of popular culture: the video game The Last of Us and the film World War Z. A couple of days later, I’m still significantly affected by The Last of Us and am thinking (and re-thinking) key points in the narrative. I’m not sure how long I remembered much about World War Z after we left the cinema.
Now, this post isn’t setting out to argue for the triumph of video games over cinema. For one thing, that would be silly; for another, it would be yet another sign of video game fans’ obsession with the film industry when talking up their own chosen medium. I’m not convinced that comparing major video game releases and major film releases is necessarily all that helpful. We’re several years past a time when Halo and Grand Theft Auto grosses were compared to opening blockbuster cinema releases as some kind of sign of the medium “arriving.” In any case, comparing The Last of Us to World War Z would be tilting the scales a little bit too far in one direction, considering the triumph that is the PS3 release and the salvaged train wrack that is the Brad Pitt vehicle. The playing field is a tad uneven. But, these were the things I watched and played and better or for worse I ended up comparing the two in my own head and I decided to come along here and write about it for a bit.
First of all, and I’ll write more on this game over the next few days I suspect, The Last of Us is an undeniable triumph. I’m not sure I’ve ever played a video game with such a fantastic narrative that both expressed various complex themes and successfully included those themes in its gameplay. It’s magnificent. The voice acting is magnificent, the artwork is magnificent, the gameplay is magnificent. It is, simply, a great game. One of the most surprising aspects of the game is how much it does with so little. Yet again I found myself holding controlling a character living in an apocalyptic wasteland fighting off zombie(like) figures and of course the only thing worse than the monsters that hunt us: ourselves. The Last of Us was set up to be hackneyed from the start, and yet it never was. This was partly thanks to the game’s brutality. The violence with which you combat various antagonists is extreme. The positions in which the central characters are placed is extreme. The player is not given an easy way out. Far from it: the protagonist’s failings are placed before you and there is no option to ignore them. Sure, you can cheer on your character’s remarkable ability to mete out violence with a fist pump but if that’s what’s happening I can’t help but feel you’re missing the point. The Last of Us demands that you accept that in this universe Naughty Dog has created there truly are no individuals exempt from the compromised morality created and sustained by twenty years of living with human and subhuman brutality. Your character(s) are not exempt. When playing the game, you have to accept the price of completing the narrative. As the game goes on, the limitations of your ability to choose, so often a weakness in story-driven games, becomes an important part of the experience.
This holds true in the gameplay itself. The third person mixture of gunplay and melee combat is itself not revolutionary. However, he strength of the narrative continues into the combat. The use of pistols, axes, iron pipes, baseball bats with nails driven into them… the stomping on the head of one’s enemy to “finish them off”… it all becomes difficult to ignore. The more invested you become in the story the more difficult it becomes to simply detach oneself from the violence central to the gameplay. This unity of theme in the overarching narrative, both in cut scenes and in-game conversations, and in the gameplay itself is a wonderful achievement. The corruption of the young co-protagonist, in her language and her actions and her increasing proclivity to murder those in the way of the group’s advancement, is a theme in and of itself as well as a central component of the relationship between the two central protagonists. More than anything, The Last of Us demands that the player think and periods of gameplay that in many ways conform to basic concepts of fighting off waves of enemies in an enclosed space don’t allow the player a break. So here I am, a few days later still thinking over key points in the game. Conversations between characters. Decisions in which I had no input but responsibility for which I was attributed. The game intends to create complex reactions and it succeeds.
World War Z is another matter entirely. I should probably be clear that I don’t intend to set up shop and take shots at the film. It was a troubled production. The connection between the film and Max Brooks’ book is rather tenuous. The film ended up as little more than a vehicle for Brad Pitt. In that respect however, World War Z delivered. I was quite impressed by how successfully the film came together. Ultimately however, one of the prices paid for acquiring this basic competence in adverse circumstances was a lack of any real thematic impact. The film puts Pitt’s characters immediate family front and center as a rather craven attempt at emotional manipulation without ever really threatening to raise the stakes. The most memorable moment of the film outside of the action pieces is a remarkably accurate portrayal of the danger of guns in inexperienced hands early on, though it is used mostly to move the plot along in a specific direction. World War Z is full of nice little touches: small nods to the book for people that have actually read it, using bicycles to travel without antagonizing the zombies, David Morse.[ref]David Morse should be in everything. Fact.[/ref] When it all comes together, well… it’s an underwhelming zombie film with some interesting set pieces that rather oddly sets its third act in rural Wales. It was fine. It was an enjoyable film. It wasn’t great, but it was fine. It did nothing interesting from a narrative point of view.
That’s a tad harsh. As I’ve intimated already, World War Z’s major success is that it’s watchable. That’s not intended as faint praise. This is a film that has gone through considerable problems during its production. In the end though, the film wasn’t particularly underwhelming, and certainly wasn’t overwhelming. I left the cinema more or less whelmed. That’s fine too. It just paled in comparison with my experience playing The Last of Us. It’s not a major turning point for video games. Not while Call of Duty games continue to exist. It was a nice point of comparison though. Are video games more suited to genre-based narratives? I don’t think so. But perhaps The Last of Us is tapping into something video games can do that film can’t. I’d love to see more video games pose that question.