“Shut up, man. Don’t you know who that is?”
He doesn’t. His friend, apparently, does and apologizes for speaking out of turn. The pair was simply lingering out on the street, leaning against a wall and talking about the rather mundane activities within the quarantine zone. Walking by, I stop and listen for a while. What they’re saying is filling in a lot of blanks that I have about where I am and what’s going on, but I drop one too many eaves and the confrontational fellow instigates with a hearty “what the hell are you lookin’ at?”
I don’t know what I’m looking at. In fact, I don’t know who I am. I’m not capable of answering either question, despite both being mostly rhetorical in nature. Gruff as I am, though, an apology is thrown at my feet, one that I dismiss. “No harm, no foul.” But what if there was harm? What if these two fools had crossed me in some way? The hasty verbal retreat, the confidence with which I respond, the assertiveness I bear as I stand my ground. What exactly am I capable of?
Having played so many franchise titles as of late (in this year alone we saw DmC Devil May Cry, Dead Space 3, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Crysis 3, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Tomb Raider, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum), it’s somewhat rare now that we get to experience a triple-A title in hazy wonderment like in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Reboots and spin-offs skew only slightly from the source in Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Sequels like Crysis 3 continuing pulling out the thread their predecessors had already teased loose.
It’s a specific type of mystery, though, that I’m talking about. BioShock Infinite had plenty of questions to answer, mysteries to solve as you played the game. But those were tied to telling a compelling narrative. Even by forcing myself to limit the amount of marketing I took in, I already knew the setup to the story. I knew Booker was looking for Elizabeth, I knew Elizabeth had unknown powers, and I knew we would be in a city in the sky that was ruled by a fellow named Comstock. I knew all of the ingredients to the soup. I just didn’t know how it would taste.
But I also knew Booker. I knew all about him before we started the adventure. He was a Pinkerton, he obviously regrets the things he did, and he is in a bad way with some unsavory people. Finding out about who Booker is and used be was not the point of BioShock Infinite‘s story. Instead, it was all about finding out how he fit into the skyward city of Columbia and the blossoming life of Elizabeth. The mystery shrouded the story, not the character.
These men on the street, though, seem terrified of me and I don’t know why. The opening chapter of The Last of Us is powerful and intense in ways I haven’t experienced in video games in quite some time (maybe ever), but it shows a different man. Joel pre-plague and Joel post-plague only share a name and a past, but now they are different people. Would that same family man with a brother and a daughter be the one that scares people just be staring at them?
Slowly, things begin to come into focus. We take our lens and point it at Joel and Ellie and the image gradually sharpens. And it’s not because we can but because we want to. Situations like this where two men are visibly scared of a single man beg questions and questions always deliciously demand answers. They had vocalized what I’d been wondering for the past 10 minutes. Who is this man?
It’s a subtle psychological affirmation of your gaps in knowledge. Something diegetic to the game doesn’t know the answer to your question, so it feels reassuring that you don’t know either. But that makes your thirst that much stronger. To find the solution to the riddle, to crack open this peanut of answers and be able to push back against this substantive intellectual pressure is an intrinsic human desire. We may not have the answer right now but we’ll get it, god dammit.
This type of desire is reinforced with the introduction of Ellie. Joel doesn’t care to find out who she is and doesn’t even much want to go through with the deal that brought them two together in the first place, but pertinent questions arise that tie back to things we want to know about Joel. The implications of who Ellie is and what she’s capable of invite a deeper analysis of what Joel hopes to gain from this newly ravaged world. And it opens up a wound long sewn shut that left little more than emotional scars and a strident personality.
Same as before, we know what we’re making. We know this is going to be a stew, but what are the ingredients? We know Joel takes Ellie across the infected country, but we know nothing about either of them. Joel is a man, Ellie is a girl, and that’s it. With BioShock Infinite, I could have at least pumped out two paragraphs on both Booker and Elizabeth before the game even started. The Last of Us crafts a more complex narrative around the question of what we’re doing with who we are. It adds texture and layers to a rather straightforward tale and set of tropes and is refreshing amongst a familiar world of well-met cyborg soldiers and space miners.
“Don’t you know who that is?” No, but neither do I.