There’s a certain comfort afforded to us in death. If only in video games, it’s a chance to try again but with new knowledge. It borders on precognition, if not prescience. When you fall and rise again, you are the only one keenly aware of this infernal cycle, the only one knowing how this ended before and how it will end soon enough. It’s a bit like being Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. No one else knows that this is the 100th time you’ve done this, but you do.
Eventually you begin to call out rote patterns of easily manipulated behaviors. From your cozy vantage point of interminable life from a bed and an “I Got You, Babe” alarm or from behind a crate and a rifle scope, choices from autonomous agents become less interesting and more rote, adherence to a strict schedule that you fill in for yourself. If I got here, then he goes there and I can do this, or then that guy does this while I do that and so on and so on. Your list of causes begins to find its effects, pegs to their holes.
In some ways, this is a satisfying loop. It is, at its most rudimentary, a form of learning, albeit an interactive one. Such as in Call of Duty games when you play Veteran difficulty, you end up playing the same two-minute chunk of a level over and over and over again until the AI and routines of enemies and friendlies alike become an extension of your knowledge of the natural world. Gravity pulls at 9.8 meters per second, inertia is a property of matter, and in 10 seconds, a grenade is going to come through that front window and I’ll dodge into the next room so I can shoot three guys coming from the back so that in three more seconds, someone will set off my proximity mine at the side door. It’s the same sort of satisfaction of setting up and fully executing a Rube Goldberg machine except you are every piece of it.
But that is not a very deep type of learning. It can be ingrained in you deeply, yes, but that is not the same thing. These hamster wheels are pure operant conditioning in the cognitive sense; you are punished or rewarded for your ability to tie together cause and effect, a process that borders on simple habituation or rote learning. Memorizing your multiplication tables earns you the ability to recall very quickly what two times two or eight times five are, but they don’t gain you any deeper understanding of what it means to integrate a differential equation.
The Last of Us, the big title release for Sony from Naughty Dog this Summer, is a really good game with a trite but exceptionally well done story, but I’m sure you already knew that since you read our review. Just about everything in The Last of Us is superb from the acting to the graphics to the music to the systemic design of the combat encounters and the game’s mechanics, but perhaps one of the greatest things it does is one that few people ever bring up: it teaches you how to die.
Or rather, it teaches you how to get the most from death. With most other games, when you die and reset at a combat checkpoint, you and all your enemies reset to the same positions. This much is also true of The Last of Us, but then what happens after the game gets set back into motion is wildly different. All that cause and effect stuff that you learned before as Joel remains true (if this guy goes this way, I can go this way and choke him out), but it doesn’t matter; it all changes. That guy will not go that way so you cannot choke him out. You cannot simply sit idly by and wait for you moment to come because by then, they will have found you. And killed you.
These deaths force you to throw away the meta conditioning within conventional games as whole where once you begin to make progress, you keep hammering on that point of ingress until you succeed or retreat to the last point of failure and hammer somewhere else. It’s a bit like the algorithm for depth-first tree traversal except the tree is full of bodies instead of nodes. But in The Last of Us, deaths force you to try new tactics in a more consistent manner. There are still situations where you can get by with simplistic repetition and process of elimination such as with Clicker and Runner patrol paths, but enemies in search mode instead of patrol mode break that warm, cuddly blanket of wait and see.
The best example I can think of is when Joel makes it into the building about a third of the way through the game and fully commits to Ellie (careful to avoid spoilers). There are multiple instances where you enter a new encounter and enemies come in on the other end and are actively looking for you. I would start out behind a couch, move left behind a desk, and wait. One guy would come by, another would come by, and finally a third would strangle behind and I would take him out. Then I moved on until I messed it all up and died.
Then I would start out behind the couch again sans Cher (sorry, Murray). I would move left again to the desk and wait for the three guys to come by again, but instead, one of them comes around the left side of the desk as the other moves along the far right of the couch. My only recourse is the middle, but the third guy can see me from ther—yeah, you know how that ends.
I must have tried this encounter at least five or six times before I made it all the way through. And it wasn’t that I couldn’t have scraped by the skin of my teeth a few attempts earlier (I could have, or at least I think I could have) but I chose to just stand there and take a few bullets to the chest so I could start anew. It’s not that I was desperate for resources and wanted a perfect run. No, instead I knew I needed another lesson. The Last of Us does not allow for passive survivors. Perhaps it was a narrative facet of Joel’s aggressive nature, but it was something I sorely lacked when I first started playing.
And that’s less about learning a new way to play but rather learning a new part of The Last of Us. It is a wide- and deep-reaching systemic lesson taught through death that this does not play like many other survival horror or stealth games. Death in The Last of Us breaks open each knowledge-bearing coconut and makes us drink the juice before asking us again if we get it yet while other games throw the coconut at us and then tell us it threw a coconut at us. We must learn instead of memorize and we must move instead of hide. It is an exemplary design tucked away inside a trite zombie tale, a revelation found only in death’s sweet release.